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House of Commons Hansard
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Westminster Hall
02 April 2019
Volume 657

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 2 April 2019

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

Further Education Funding

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered further education funding.

Good morning, Sir Roger. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to see colleagues from across the House come together to debate further education colleges. I do so with my co-conspirator, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)—165 colleagues signed our recent letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is a fantastic opportunity for hon. Members from all parties to come together without the need for indicative motions on alternatives and to reach a rare and much-cherished cross-party consensus on four simple propositions.

The first proposition is that further education is incredibly important to all of us, in every constituency in the land. The second is that our colleges need more funding to achieve important goals. The third is that the spending review and Budget are a great opportunity to make giant steps towards that objective. Lastly, today is an opportunity for many people to give a clear message to the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, who has been very supportive throughout, and to the wider Government: please do more to help our colleges provide the skills our young people need for themselves and for our country.

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Well done to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. Peter Symonds College in Winchester is the largest in England. It has grown significantly in recent years. Student numbers grew by 19% between 2011 and 2018, yet in the same period the college’s overall funding grew by just 3%—the relevant factors are the rising cost base, changes to pension contributions, national insurance and the part-funded pay rise—meaning that, without a long-overdue increase in the base rate, it will have to make some very difficult and significant changes. Does my hon. Friend agree that the comprehensive spending review is looking increasingly like a seminal moment for this sector?

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Order. Before the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) answers, may I put a marker down? An enormous number of Members wish to take part in the debate. I am going to insist that interventions be brief.

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The short answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) is yes.

Today, I want to set out briefly what the problem is—as you say, Sir Roger, many Members wish to speak—what the case for further education colleges is in more detail, what outcomes we would like to see from more funding going into the sector, what skills and productivity we should be looking for, and some of the key statistics, both locally and nationally, that are on our minds.

Let me start by outlining the problem. It is simply that education for 16 to 18-year-olds has, broadly speaking, not been funded as well as that for other age groups. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has done research that shows that. The chart we used in our letter shows clearly that, of the four main categories of education—primary, secondary, further and higher—further education is the only one on which spending has fallen in real terms recently. It is therefore the most deserving of the four categories, but let it also be said—

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I will give way in a second; let me just finish the sentence. I suspect that all of us here share the view that education in general is a good cause for the spending review and the Budget, so this is not to decry the other three categories but to highlight the importance of more funding for further education. Three colleagues wished to intervene—I think they were, in order, an hon. Friend and then two Opposition colleagues.

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I will be as brief as I can. Does my hon. Friend not think that FE colleges have the ability to improve the situation themselves by attracting good companies in to help fund apprenticeships? That is precisely what I am doing with the FE college in my constituency.

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My hon. Friend is always a great champion of these things, and he is absolutely right. Colleges can certainly help themselves by attracting great employers to offer apprenticeships, and we can help them by introducing some of the employers if need be.

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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the restrictions on FE funding have directly damaged the ability of colleges to recruit very specialist skills at the highest level, such as in engineering, meaning that vacancies exist for long periods and that colleges are often cutting short those types of course?

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The hon. Lady has brilliantly anticipated a line in my speech, and I agree with her.

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Notwithstanding the Treasury’s historical aversion to hypothecated taxation, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given that the Government are making a substantial surplus out of the apprenticeship levy at the moment, there is a strong moral case for recycling that money into the 16-to-18 sector?

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Hypothecated funds are interesting. I am an advocate of them for the field of care. I will leave my right hon. Friend the Minister to comment on the huge surplus being generated; I have not yet seen much sign of that surplus coming through in my constituency, but the hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point.

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The point about recruitment and retention has been raised. Does my hon. Friend agree that the sector desperately needs more funding? In a case I am aware of, there are staff who have not had a pay rise for 10 years. If that is the case, retention will become impossible.

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Yes. When it comes to pay rises, all of us will remember that take-home pay has increased by about £1,200 as a result of the tax-free allowance being almost doubled, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right on the wider point about being able to retain key staff. That point has been raised by other colleagues and is crucial.

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rose

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I will give way to Cheltenham and then Truro.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that FE is at its most successful when it is provided locally, in communities? Gloscol—Gloucestershire College—provides services in both Cheltenham and my hon. Friend’s constituency of Gloucester, but if the cuts increase, it will be at only one or other of those sites, and that will reduce the uptake of courses and damage FE provision in the county overall. Does my hon. Friend agree?

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Where my hon. Friend and constituency near-neighbour is absolutely right is that, in the case of Gloucestershire College, which provides those skills in Cheltenham, Gloucester and the Forest of Dean, there is only one provider, in effect, in the whole county. That is why further education colleges are crucial to the infrastructure of all our constituencies. I agree totally with that.

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I must give way to Truro, and then I will give way to Ludlow.

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My hon. Friend is being very generous with his time. I commend him for securing the debate. There could not be a greater champion for this sector than our right hon. Friend the Minister. Our job is to give her strength to go forward to the Treasury to secure the funding, and it is great that so many of us will be on the record giving her that strength. On the point about more funding to secure better wages, Truro and Penwith College is outstanding and deemed to be so by Ofsted, yet it has not been able to give its staff a pay rise for eight years, which of course is making it difficult for the college to recruit and retain staff.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think we can all agree that it is time that core funding allowed for a decent increase in salaries for staff.

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I must give way to Ludlow, and then I will give way to York.

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My hon. Friend is exhibiting, if I may say so, an almost ministerial skill in handling interventions today. He was touching on geography. The FE college in my constituency is the only location for sixth-form and technical training within a 20-mile radius. Does he agree that if pressure is placed on isolated, rural FE colleges, we may well find ourselves in a situation in which no such provision is available in parts of the country, which would not be acceptable?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The crucial point, as he implies, is that, in effect, his local college, like so many of our colleges, has a monopoly. If things were to go badly wrong, who else would provide what it does? Who would provide those opportunities for young people? My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) was reaching for an intervention.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He is right to highlight the importance of wider education funding, which has seen increases. However, York College, in my constituency, tells me that the big problem it faces is that while school sixth forms can cross-subsidise, colleges cannot. Does he feel that that issue affects all colleges?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a significant issue, as is the issue of A-levels for those who went to schools without a sixth form, for whom further education is really important. I know that my co-conspirator, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, will come on to that point.

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My hon. Friend deserves huge praise for bringing this debate to the House. The Minister also deserves huge praise, and I know she is listening and believes a great deal of what we are saying. In Taunton we have an outstanding sixth-form college, Richard Huish College, and an excellent university centre. However, those institutions tell me that, by 2021, they need at least £760 more per student to deliver the apprenticeship scheme, which delivers for business. Does he agree that we want to retain those students locally, because they have the skills we need for the future, and to deliver minority subjects, such as languages?

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I absolutely agree. The Minister, who is a former apprentice herself, is a huge champion for that, along with colleagues from across the House.

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The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Related to the suppression of pay in the sector is a casualisation of contracts, which are being put out to subsidiary businesses within college groups, and that has an impact on the morale and pay of staff. Next Monday and Tuesday there will be strikes at Warwickshire College Group in my area. That is not what students need, and the sector does not need it either.

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The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question. He is absolutely right that that is not what students need, and I am not sure that it is what colleges really need at the moment. Perhaps the Minister will touch on that.

We are looking for more funding, which is needed to ensure that good staff are hired and retained. Unused space needs to be used. Interestingly, around a third of the space in the nation’s further education colleges is currently unused, so there is a capacity opportunity, which could provide more space for more students to get those key skills.

We need more quality apprentices to be hired and trained. We all have stories from our respective constituencies about the importance of that. Colleges can make a huge difference in terms of the life opportunities apprenticeships offer. The key output from that will be a leap in business productivity, which we know is one of our country’s big, outstanding challenges.

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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, as well as funding for students, colleges face challenges with apprenticeships and, in particular, with the new non-levy apprenticeship scheme, of which the Minister is well aware? In my area, the Newcastle and Stafford Colleges Group has no funding for 18-plus, non-levy adult apprenticeships, and only enough funding until the end of September for 16 to 18-year-olds.

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The apprenticeship levy is an issue in itself, which I do not intend to address today, because it is slightly peripheral to what we can achieve in an hour and a half on the overall situation for further education colleges. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are ongoing issues, which I know the skills Minister is doing her best to tackle, and I am grateful to him for raising them.

More funding can achieve results in a couple of slightly softer areas, which are worth mentioning. The challenge around mental health is not unique to further education but exists across the education sector. There is no doubt about it: young students in general are facing more challenges than in the past. Funding to ensure that they get the support they need while at college is incredibly important and should increase their resilience and contribute to better results and opportunities. It is worth adding that to the checklist of things that could be achieved through more funding.

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Lastly, at the soft end of what could be done, there is a range of enrichment activities, particularly for students aged 16 to 18, where colleges have opportunities to demonstrate that they can compete with other, better funded institutions.

Before I turn to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who is from the engineering sector and a great advocate for it, I will just touch on a few general facts, which it is useful for us to bear in mind. There are 266 colleges in England—almost one college for every two constituencies. They educate the majority of 16 to 18-year-olds and 2.2 million other young people and adults. On average, there are 1,200 apprenticeships in every further education college. Students who are over 19 generate an additional £70 billion for the economy over their lifetime.

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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I will just make a bit of progress, then I will come to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and then the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss).

The average pay for a college teacher—a number of colleagues have mentioned salaries as an issue—is £30,000, compared to £37,000 for a school teacher. I find that a particularly interesting statistic because it implies that we put a lower value on further education teachers than school teachers, which cannot be right. It is also worth highlighting that in 2017 alone the turnover rate in further education was 17%—almost one in five—which is higher than the rate in schools. As a result of funding issues, 63% of colleges have been making compulsory redundancies. If this was a business, we would have to assume that it was in decline. I think we would all say that it is time that we halted and reversed that process.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the devastating impact that lack of funding for further education is having, particularly on young people. Colleges such as Newcastle College in my constituency are doing great work in really difficult circumstances. Does he agree that adult education and lifelong learning, such as that delivered by the Workers’ Educational Association in hard-to-reach communities in Newcastle—which has also been severely cut and is likely to be cut more in the future—provides the kind of opportunities that we need, particularly for productivity in the fourth industrial revolution, as jobs change in the future?

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The short answer is that I agree. Qualifications for workers in key sectors have dropped. Qualifications for construction workers have dropped from 98,000 to 62,000. For engineers, the sector from which the hon. Lady comes from, including plumbers and electricians, the figure has dropped from 145,000 to 46,000. That is a huge drop in a relatively short space of time, precisely at the moment when we need more engineers in this country, to take forward our technology revolution.

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My hon. Friend highlights precisely the relevant point, namely that at the very moment when we should be looking at vocational skills in our economy, we are squeezing funding in that area. This is critical to where our country is heading in the next 10 to 20 years.

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I agree with that, as I think all hon. Members would.

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I do apologise—I will come to the hon. Lady in one second. Some statistics, which the Minister is well aware of, suggest that on a national basis we are in the bottom quartile for the numbers of higher apprenticeships, which are the ones that include the greatest numbers of skills and will drive forward our technology businesses. At the same time—the hon. Member for Scunthorpe may touch on this—it is worth remembering that the entry qualifications, levels 2 and 3, play a very important role in getting some of our youngest and least-skilled constituents on to the ladder of opportunity, so we need support at both ends.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I applaud the work of Sheffield College in my constituency during these difficult times. Does he agree that we are taking away a vital support system for many in our working-class communities, and that we will rob them of vital opportunities for the future, unless we change now, and start giving further education colleges the support that they need and individuals the community support that they need to realise their potential?

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I agree with the hon. Lady’s general point that it is incredibly important to give our young people maximum opportunities. Everyone has highlighted the role of further education colleges in that.

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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I will make a tiny bit of progress. I am conscious that a lot of hon. Members want to speak, so I will try to reach the end of my comments and bring the hon. Lady in before I finish.

It would be wrong of me not to mention the importance of Gloucestershire College—Gloscol—in my county of Gloucestershire, which I have known well for the last decade. The management have done their best to try to use resources to maximum effect and give our young people the opportunities that we are looking at across the country. Its 1,000 full and part-time staff serve some 3,500 students across the three campuses in Gloucester, Cheltenham and the Forest of Dean. It is clear, however, that even such a college, which has been rated good for the last three and a half years, is struggling to maintain the range of qualifications that my colleagues in Gloucestershire and I want it to provide.

I will not touch on South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, because the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) will want to, but I suspect that he will mention some similar issues. I also pay tribute to my fellow campaigner in Stroud, Siobhan Baillie, who has visited the college twice recently and has highlighted some of the issues that it faces, including—as is true for all colleges—the teachers’ pension increases that cost it £1 million a year. I hope that the Minister will comment on those pension costs, which are a real issue for many colleges across the country; she has spoken about them before.

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I have one brief sentence. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about young people, but colleges support older people and people of all ages as well. I left a grammar school with two O-levels, then went to college, got my A-levels and trained as a nurse—aged 39. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

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The hon. Lady makes a very good point, as shown by the warmth of approval purring through the Chamber. She is a fantastic example of what a further education college can achieve; perhaps we should have a colleges alumni group in Parliament.

Some of the comments that the Association of Colleges and other royal societies have fed in to me confirm the general picture that I and other hon. Members have painted so far, which is that we need more funding for teachers’ pay; more help to ensure that the range of subjects continues to increase rather than decrease; and more young people to get decent results in English and maths at A-level. We also need to tackle the shortage in science, technology, engineering and maths skills, which are vital for our country’s future, as several hon. Members have mentioned.

I will finish by alluding to a remarkable bundle of statistics. There are 171,000 16 to 18-year-olds doing A-levels in further education colleges—a huge army of young people who deserve to be taught well and given the resources they need—and 672,000 students taking STEM subjects in colleges, who also deserve the best teachers available from a sector where salaries are getting higher all the time.

For all the reasons mentioned, I hope that the debate encourages the skills Minister on her chosen path, which is to be the champion of further education colleges. I also hope it will ensure that, in this spending review and Budget, further education colleges finally get the increase in funding that they deserve, so that they can ultimately improve opportunities and productivity, and be the success that we all want them to be in our constituencies.

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Order. A large number of hon. Members wish to participate. I could impose a time limit of two minutes, but I do not think that is realistic, so I will impose a time limit of three minutes. Please bear in mind that each intervention adds a minute, so it is entirely up to hon. Members whether they allow other hon. Members the chance to speak at the end of the debate. I urge hon. Members to be as courteous and forbearing as they can.

Exceptionally, to facilitate the debate, I will give the batting order now. Those at the end may choose to intervene, on the almost-certain understanding that they will not get called, because I suspect that the time limit I am imposing will not be realistic—I appreciate that I am taking time myself. From the Opposition Benches, I shall call Daniel Zeichner, Paul Blomfield, Emma Reynolds, Liz McInnes, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Luke Pollard, Jim Shannon, Marsha De Cordova, Derek Twigg, Dr David Drew, Rachael Maskell, Holly Lynch, Karen Lee, Gill Furniss, and—first, as one of the co-sponsors of the debate—Nic Dakin. From the Government Benches, I shall call Andrew Selous, Will Quince, Sir David Evennett, Giles Watling, Martin Vickers, Peter Aldous, Andrew Lewer and Derek Thomas.

I am afraid that those who are attending the debate who are not on that list and have not put in to speak will not stand a chance of getting called. I hope that is helpful. Moving swiftly forward, I call Nic Dakin.

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Thank you, Sir Roger; I shall rattle through my speech. I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for clearly setting out the case for colleges, which is echoed by the big number of hon. Members attending the debate. I hope that the Government are listening.

Colleges provide a bridge between education and the world of work, help industry to find solutions, and secure real work contexts and experiences for students. In small towns such as Scunthorpe, they are significant engines of enterprise and social mobility. North Lindsey College is showing great leadership by opening its new university centre as part of the drive to build higher level skills locally. John Leggott College celebrates 50 years of Ofsted recognising its pastoral support as outstanding.

Success does not guarantee future success, however. North Lindsey embraced the Government’s apprenticeship agenda and achieved growth of more than 30% against a backdrop of a national decline in starts. However, due to problems with the levy, non-levy-paying companies may not be able to provide apprenticeships for young people, which might be restricted as caps take effect. I would appreciate it if the Minister commented on that.

There has been a 22% decline in core funding since 2010-11. The average funding per student for 16 to 18-year-olds is 15% lower than for 11 to 16-year-olds and about half the average university tuition fee. Some 51% of colleges and schools have dropped courses in modern foreign languages; 38% have dropped STEM courses; 78% have reduced student support services; and 81% are teaching students in larger classes.

It is high time to raise the core rate, which has remained frozen at £4,000 per student per year since 2013-14. Recent research by London Economics found that £760 per student was the minimum amount of additional funding required so that there can be student support services where they are needed, protection for minority subjects and an increase in time for students. Raising the rate would benefit 1.1 million young people and the economy. The decline needs to be reversed now. Stabilising the core element of college funding would be a clear commitment to not only 16 to 18-year-olds, but colleges and their pivotal role in communities.

More than ever, as we contemplate life outside the EU, 16 to 18-year-olds are our future—this country’s future—and they deserve to be backed by all of us across this House and by our Government. It is high time to raise the roof, shout out for our young people’s future and raise the rate—that means the proper rate, not bits and bobs around T-levels, a larger programme uplift and maths levels. Those things are valuable and useful, but raising the rate is about the core funding that will make a core difference by transforming the lives of 16 to 18-year-olds and transforming the country.

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I am very proud to have Central Bedfordshire College in my constituency. It is a multi-campus college, with sites in Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Houghton Regis, which are three of my towns. Of course, having a multi-campus college means that there are additional expenses.

For me, this issue is one of fairness. Every stage of education is important; none of us in Westminster Hall today has come here to do down our schools or the excellent work that universities do. We all want schools and universities to be well funded. However, the way that colleges have been treated in comparison with schools and universities is simply not fair.

How can it be acceptable that college teachers are paid on average less than 80% of the rate of school staff? We know that we have critical shortages of college teachers in engineering, maths and other critical subjects. We also know that the recent pay rise given to school staff of up to 3.5% was not given to further education. Again, that is simply not fair. We must stand up against it, because our colleges and their staff do brilliant jobs.

The second issue I will raise is the issue that this country has with productivity. The UK ranks poorly in terms of skills comparisons. The UK is in the bottom quartile of the OECD for level 4 and level 5 technical skills. Our colleges are the means of doing something about that. Productivity has been an issue in the UK economy for a very long time indeed, and it is our colleges that will be the answer.

It should also shame us as a country that, according to a report from the Centre for Social Justice, 85% of people who start their working lives in an entry-level job will finish their lives in an entry-level job. That is an appalling statistic, showing that only 15% of people escape and move on.

Our colleges are great poverty-busting institutions. They are the means by which we have the high skills that lead to higher pay and help people escape poverty. That is why further education is essential. We want our colleges to offer more. We want them to be open in the evenings and at weekends, so that people in those entry-level jobs can upskill while they work, in order to progress, to get higher pay and to put food on the table for their families and look after them. That is why this debate is so important.

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Recently, Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the CBI, spoke at Cambridge Regional College and said that further education colleges have “politically been neglected”, which has led to their historic underfunding. I think that theme will come through in many of the contributions this morning.

I represent an education city, but I see it as my business to speak up just as much for the further education sector as for the famous universities for which Cambridge is known.

When I spoke recently to the director of Cambridge Regional College, Mark Robertson, he detailed many of the funding issues that have been raised this morning. I asked what it would take for him to really make a difference. He smiled ruefully at me and said, “Even a 5% uplift would be absolutely game-changing.” It seems to me that it is important to get that across today: colleges are not asking for a revolutionary change regarding their settlement; they are asking for a relatively small reversal of the damage that has been done over the last decade.

The situation is particularly difficult in areas such as mine, where staff face very high housing costs, there is a lot of churn and a lot of people cannot afford to live and work there. Cambridge is an expensive city and if we compare the pay with that in some schools, we see that colleges are working at a systemic disadvantage.

One key issue is that students are being put through maths and English retakes consistently. I am told by staff that the retakes are very, very difficult. It is very hard to teach people who really do not want to be there and who are almost being set up to fail. I hope that the Minister will consider revisiting that issue, because frankly there are other ways of assessing whether people have the appropriate skills to take them forward. From what I hear, it seems that the retakes process is proving counterproductive. When I speak to Pete Mulligan, a local University and College Union representative, he says that it is really difficult for FE staff who can see ways of taking people forward when those people are being forced down a very narrow route.

I will not repeat the figures that we have heard this morning, but I suspect that the strong message to the Minister from both sides of the Chamber today will be that as we come to the spending review, particularly in the light of the skills challenges around our changing relationship with the European Union, it is really important that we get this matter right. Obviously, there will be an argument about funding and the comprehensive spending review, but the fact there are so many Members here this morning—I have counted at least 20 Members on each side of the Chamber—sends a strong message to the Government that the situation needs to change.

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Further education is the crucial but sometimes forgotten link between secondary schools and universities; it is very much the Cinderella service. It can pave the way for an excellent university career or provide the opportunity to learn the vocational skills required to enter a competitive professional field, and is just as important as secondary or higher education. We cannot afford to neglect further education and we must correct the disparity in funding.

As many colleagues have said, the national funding rate for 16 and 17-year-olds has remained frozen since 2013-14, yet we know that, as with our schools, the cost pressures on our colleges are considerable. If we do not address that, there will be a huge issue—it has already been growing year on year.

Despite that, our schools and colleges have been doing an excellent job with the resources they have. Two colleges in my constituency, Colchester Sixth Form College and Colchester Institute, are both bucking the trend. In my constituency, A-level attainment is far above the national average, which is remarkable. Huge credit deserves to go to the teachers, staff and leaders who work within our schools and colleges. However, we cannot expect this success to continue if we do not take action to address the rising costs faced by schools and colleges, and their underfunding.

Those rising costs are having an impact: 51% of colleges and schools have dropped courses in modern foreign languages; 38% have dropped STEM courses, which we know we so desperately need; and 78% have reduced student support services or extracurricular activities, with significant cuts to mental health services.

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A problem that I find in my constituency is that there is a disconnect between the jobs being generated by the economy and the ability of our education sector to provide the right skills for those jobs. Havering Sixth Form College, which is in my constituency, plays a key role in that process. For instance, going down the nursing associate route will be critical for our public sector. Trying to get that match between the public sector, the economy and our education sector is critical, which is why this debate is so important.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is our colleges that are working closely with industry to ensure that our future workforce have the skills and competence that are needed to thrive and develop careers within those sectors. It is important that we keep that link alive.

As Members have mentioned, the Raise the Rate campaign is calling for the frozen national funding rate for FE students to be increased to at least £4,760 per student, to bring it closer to the level spent on 11 to 16-year-olds, which is some £5,341 per student.

I will conclude by saying that if we believe in social mobility and equality of opportunity, the heart of that process is within our education system. It is imperative that we invest in our people. I know that the Minister cares passionately about this issue. One of the frustrations with debates such as this is that we make the arguments to Education Ministers who know the arguments well and are well-versed in them. Therefore, this is really a message to the Treasury, and we say loudly and clearly, on a cross-party basis, that we need more money for our education budget and, in particular, for the Cinderella service that is further education.

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I chair the all-party parliamentary group on students and we provide a voice for students in both further education and higher education. In this place, we spend a lot of time talking—rightly—about higher education, but not enough talking about further education. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate and on the work that he does with my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). It is a real pleasure to see so many colleagues attending this debate; I am sure that it will send, through the Minister, a powerful message back to the Treasury.

I will keep my remarks brief. It is a delight to be able to scribble out many of the comments that I was going to make because so many other Members want to contribute to the debate.

I will briefly make a couple of points about Sheffield College, which provides a great education for 17,000 students from entry level to level six, across 25 subject areas. Crucially, 53% of its students come from disadvantaged postcode areas, including 75% of its BME students. Half of its 16 to 18-year-olds receive financial support from the college, because they come from low-income households.

When the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) made her first speech as Prime Minister—that seems like a very long time ago—she said that her Government

“will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”

That is exactly the mission of Sheffield College and of the FE sector. Our college has strong leadership. It is ambitious for its students and in its mission to enable social mobility, and it is committed to upskilling, retraining and developing the skills of adults across the city.

Ahead of today’s debate, I asked the college what it needed to fulfil its role, and there were four asks. The first was that within the wider debate on education funding, 16 to 18-year-olds are recognised as a priority. College funding has fallen by 30% over the past 10 years, and that must change. Secondly, it asked that additional funding be made available for adult students. Continuing on from previous cuts, the college’s indicative adult budget—

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We need to add that further education colleges are the best opportunity for lifelong learning.

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The hon. Lady is exactly right, so it is disappointing that we see consistent cuts in the adult budget. In the year ahead, Sheffield College faces a further £120,000 of cuts, even though it is best placed to meet the needs of both individuals and the local economy.

The third ask is for funding to enable the college to recruit competitively. It is simply wrong that the average FE teacher’s pay is £7,000 less than that of a schoolteacher. The Government refuse to underpin FE pay awards in the way they do for schools. That is not fair to staff and it makes it difficult to recruit, often in key vocational areas.

Fourthly, the college asks for funding in capital investment. Our college has good buildings, but it struggles to maintain up-to-date learning resources, particularly in expensive areas such as engineering. The college wants to ensure that all students experience real work environments wherever possible, but in too many areas resources are not up to industry standards.

Finally, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on students and as someone who is committed to student wellbeing and conscious of the challenges of mental health in our schools, FE colleges and universities, I would add that colleges have not had the necessary resources to provide the support that FE students need. I hope that the Minister will make the argument to the Treasury for redressing the underfunding of recent years and ensure that our colleges have the funding they need to make the real difference that they seek to provide for students.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate on such an important topic. We have heard powerful arguments on further education funding, which I myself will come to shortly, but we should first take a moment to recognise the real achievements we have seen in further education in the past few years.

All Members here today will have some fantastic colleges and sixth forms in their area. In Bexley, we are fortunate to have a campus of London South East Colleges, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills visited last year. She toured the campus, met students, apprentices and tutors and observed a number of lessons and activities. The college appreciated the visit, as it enabled it to showcase the outstanding work done by students, the facilities, and the plans to help upskill people in our area.

Much has been said about the financial challenges that further education establishments face. Although further education seems to be the poor relation of secondary and higher education, we must not forget that in the “Further education and skills inspections as at 31 August 2018: main findings” document, 81% of the 1,040 providers inspected were judged good or outstanding. We should praise lecturers in particular; I want to praise mine in London South East Colleges. They should be valued more, and it is really disappointing that they are not paid at the same level as teachers.

We need to realise that these colleges are the engines of our future economic success. They provide the young people we will need, when we leave the European Union, for the future of our economy, and the opportunities for our country to thrive in the global world.

We need to address the T-levels that are coming in, which we welcome. The £500 million investment, however, will not fully materialise until 2023 and, when it does, the majority of students will still be doing academic or applied general qualifications.

We need to ensure that further education establishments provide opportunities for older, as well as for young, people, and for social mobility. In my view, social mobility is absolutely key to the future of our country, and FE is the engine that can deliver it.

Time is short. There are so many more issues I would like to raise, but I will not repeat what colleagues on both sides have said. We hope that the debate will give more ammunition to my right hon. Friend the Minister in her campaign with the Treasury, to ensure that we get the extra funding we need for the FE sector. Education funding at all levels should, of course, be seen as a necessary investment for our country and should be increased, but FE colleges in particular should be a priority.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) not only on his eloquent speech but on taking so many interventions. I also congratulate every Member who is here, because their presence sends out a strong signal, not only to the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, who we know gets the message, but to the Treasury. I hope that the televisions in the Treasury are blaring away with Westminster Hall on the screens, because it is the Treasury that needs to get the message. That is why a cross-party consensus is so important. We are all essentially saying the same thing—that further education has been overlooked and needs sustainable, long-term funding.

We are lucky enough in the Black Country to have some fantastic colleges, including City of Wolverhampton College. It is a place that is close to my heart because I studied my Spanish A-level there alongside those I studied at school. The college provides vital educational opportunities to both young people and adults. It offers more than 300 vocational and academic qualifications to 4,500 students, covering a wide range of full and part-time courses, including a well-regarded journalism course. It also has some fantastic, but expensive to maintain, facilities that enable people to train in the trades, such as plumbing.

Many of the facts and figures have been covered by colleagues, but it is worth saying that the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently said that further education was the “biggest” loser in cuts to education. It simply cannot be right that funding per pupil for 16 and 17-year-olds has been frozen at £4,000 since 2014 and £3,300 for 18-year-olds, or that lecturers are paid about £7,000 less than teachers. It is not about just the money or the statistics; it is about what we value as a society and what our objectives are. If we are serious about tackling inequality and about ensuring that our young people, and adults who have perhaps missed out on opportunities at school, fulfil their potential, we need to do something about the situation.

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In Sheffield, we have a tale of two cities. The difference in life expectancy between the east and west is 10 years. One of the biggest differences is that in the east we have little access to schools with sixth forms, so FE is a really important unlocker for social mobility. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is fundamentally a class issue?

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Indeed. If we are serious about social mobility, we must fund further education better. More broadly, if as a society and as an economy we are serious about attracting more investment into the UK and competing in the world and, crucially—the hon. Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Gloucester mentioned this—if we are serious about tackling low productivity, we cannot do anything about those things unless we invest in the skills of our young people and adults. We know that we have a problem with that in the UK; it is not a new problem. It is pretty clear to everyone here that we need sustained increases in funding for colleges, and the Raise the Rate campaign will, I hope, ultimately be successful.

The colleges have done a good job in raising the problem. Often in education debates, we focus purely on the early years, which are very important, and on primary and secondary and then university education, and further education is overlooked. That is why today’s debate is critical.

I say again that I hope the TVs in the Treasury are switched on to Westminster Hall this morning. I thank the Minister for her advocacy. This is not just the right thing morally; increasing and sustaining further education funding is the right thing to do for the prosperity of our country.

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Thank you for putting me on the list, Sir Roger. It is lovely to be in a Chamber in which, for once, everybody is largely agreeing with each other. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on having introduced today’s debate, and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on the cross-party campaign to get this issue on the agenda ahead of the spending review. Even in these uncertain times, we must continue to fight for causes that we believe in. This is one I believe in, because I had something to do with further education many years ago before I went off into the realms of drama—come to think of it, I am back there now.

I will focus on the much-welcomed introduction of T-levels, which provide a multi-faceted and practical approach to education and prepare students for the needs of industry. Successful delivery of T-levels requires teaching staff with specialist industry expertise, up-to-date equipment, and smaller class sizes, all of which require more funding. For T-levels to be viable, the Association of Colleges believes that we need to introduce a base rate of £1,000 per student as a minimum. We need to get those T-levels right, as they provide the knowledge and experience needed to open the door into skilled employment. Such a potentially transformative scheme cannot be delivered on the cheap: a higher level of investment must be maintained.

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Yesterday, a group of us met the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to urge that FE college funding be increased in the upcoming spending review. Petroc College in North Devon is eager to get on with delivering the T-levels, exactly as my hon. Friend has mentioned. Does he agree that that is a vital thing to do?

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I agree with my hon. Friend. That is exactly what we are here to do, and judging by the comments from around the Chamber, I think that everybody else agrees with him as well.

I want this scheme to be a success, because I am sure that it would be particularly popular in my Clacton constituency. My area of Clacton lags behind the average in Essex and the national average for the number of members of the workforce without any qualification at all, which is why I encourage the Government to invest more in adult education. In fact, the only area in which we in Clacton beat the national average is the number of people who are economically active but have no qualifications; they make up nearly 10% of our workforce. I know from my conversations on the doorstep that people in Clacton have a real appetite for further education, and we have a great facility in Adult Community Learning Essex. I encourage the Government to take investment in adult learning seriously. It will pay great dividends in many areas, especially those such as Clacton, where many small and medium-sized enterprises are crying out for a skilled workforce.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this important debate. I have in my constituency Hopwood Hall College, a further education college that is in the top 10% in England for level 3 progress and has the highest achievement rate for vocational level 2 in Greater Manchester. That college is rooted in our local community, and is crucial to driving social mobility and providing the skills needed to boost our local and regional economy. My partner taught art and design at Hopwood Hall before he retired. I mention that because, later in my short speech, I will refer to his experience of teaching young people.

Many young people in my constituency also choose to study at sixth-form college. In my neighbouring constituency of Rochdale, we have Rochdale Sixth Form College, which in January this year was named the highest-ranked sixth form college in the UK for value-added performance for the fifth year running. However, although my local FE institutions enjoy success, both have expressed to me their concerns about funding issues and their long-term sustainability. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has highlighted the shocking cuts to 16 to 18-year-old and adult education over the past decade. It has stated:

“Funding per student aged 16–18 has seen the biggest squeeze of all stages of education for young people in recent years.”

Those funding cuts are affecting the sustainability and quality of FE provision, with colleges having to deal with an average cut of 30% while costs have increased dramatically.

Research from the House of Commons Library shows that when the educational maintenance allowance for 16 to 19-year-olds was scrapped by the coalition Government and replaced with a bursary scheme, expenditure through that scheme was only about a third of the expenditure on EMAs. When that happened, my partner was still teaching, and I remember him telling me that students were forced to drop out of his course simply because they could no longer afford the bus fare to get to college. The scrapping of the EMA scheme was a cruel blow to the most disadvantaged students and their efforts to access an education, and a Labour Government would reinstate that scheme, which has been proven to support retention of students in education.

Clearly, something has to change; this situation is just not sustainable. The solution, as many Members have already said, is to raise the national funding rate for 16 to 18-year-olds. It makes sense to do so, as there is little point in investing in pre-16 and higher education if the pivotal stage in the middle is overlooked.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on his efforts to secure this debate.

We all know that Governments over the past 10 years or so have had to make some difficult financial decisions, but the FE sector has perhaps suffered more than others, and certainly more than is desirable. In places such as my constituency and the neighbouring town of Grimsby, which have suffered a significant decline over the past 30 or 40 years following the loss of their core industry, too many of our young people have been lacking a vision of the opportunities that lie ahead. FE colleges have done considerable work in building that vision; indeed, the principal at Franklin College in Grimsby said to me that his students

“go on to contribute to the town, region and country”.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that colleges play a vital role in the community, not just through education but through a far wider range of activities, as mine in Stafford—a member of the Newcastle and Stafford Colleges Group—does?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Colleges have given young people in the Cleethorpes area the opportunity to gain vision and ambition, and have helped to retain those young people in the local area once they have qualified, which is particularly important.

In the short time I have, I will mention some of the other points that the principals at my two colleges have drawn to my attention. They have, of course, highlighted the fact that, over the past 10 years, there has been a 30% funding cut in FE colleges. The principal at Franklin College pointed out that, to start off with, that actually helped, inasmuch as principals recognised there were economies to be made and efficiencies that could be gained.

One important point both principals have drawn to my attention is that FE students in this country get 14 or 15 hours’ tuition per week on average, compared with 26 hours in Canada, 27 in Singapore and 30 in Shanghai. We are in a competitive situation, and we need to train our young people to go out and get the qualifications that enable them to compete for jobs in what is, whether we like it or not, a global economy.

The Minister can see from the number of Members who have turned up how strongly feelings on this issue run across parties. I urge her to take these points away. We will give her our full support in her battles with the Treasury.

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I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for having secured this important debate. I pay tribute to all the local colleges in the north-east and especially Sunderland College—I regularly meet its representatives, who do such a great job with ever-decreasing budgets.

Between 2010-11 and 2017-18, spending on further education and skills fell by £3.3 billion in real terms. At the same time, employers are reporting another rise in the number of vacancies they are facing as a result of skills shortages. To bridge the skills gap, further education needs investment. However, over the past 10 years colleges have had to deal with an average funding cut of 30%, while at the same time costs have risen dramatically. Funding for adult education has been cut by 62% since 2010.

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I am fortunate to have a good college, Riverside College, in my constituency. However, one thing that concerns me about the cuts and the impact of the funding problems with colleges is that adult education, which my hon. Friend just touched on, is a second chance for many people who may not have done well at school. They have another opportunity through further education to do better. We need more support for that.

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Absolutely. In the past 10 years, we have seen enrolments for adult education drop from 5.1 million to 1.9 million. Funding for students aged 16 to 18 has also been cut by 8% in real terms since 2010. The current base for 16-to-18 education is just £4,000 a year, as it has been since 2013, with no increase.

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One simple thing that could be done today would be to fund 18-year-olds at the same rate as 17-year-olds. It is absolutely wrong that they get less funding than children a year younger than them. Does my hon. Friend agree?

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I absolutely agree. We also found that the budget did not increase when education became compulsory until 18. It just does not reflect the current cost of high-quality courses, including the new T-levels, as we heard from a Government Member.

I do not know whether the Minister wrote to everyone, but I got a letter from her last week, in which she said:

“A strong FE sector is essential to ensuring everyone in our society, whatever their background, has the opportunity to succeed…At its core this means colleges need strong leadership and must be financially sustainable and resilient, so that they can invest in learning and respond to changing demands.”

Given that acknowledgement from the Minister that FE must be financially sustainable and resilient, can she please justify her Department’s constant budget-slashing of FE?

As we all know, education is the key to a bright future. We must ensure that everyone, no matter their age, has the opportunity to learn and develop new skills. The only way we can achieve that is for the Government to invest. I hope they are listening, and I hope the Treasury is watching, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) said. People in Sunderland and across the country deserve better than the current funding model.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) on their leadership and on securing the debate.

Putting the funding of further education on a sustainable, financially secure and long-term footing is vital for those young people who will reap the dividends, for those communities in which colleges are based and for the greater benefit of UK plc. Without that investment, social mobility will decline still further and the productivity gap will widen to a chasm.

In Waveney, East Coast College, which includes Lowestoft Sixth Form College, provides an important bridge from the classroom to university and the workplace. In a coastal town where there has been economic decline, they are the cornerstone on which we can rebuild the economy and give young people the opportunity to realise their full potential.

The case for better funding of further education is strong. It will improve social mobility, particularly in those parts of the country where people have often been left behind. It is a vital stepping stone from the classroom to the workplace.

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Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

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I will carry on, if that is okay.

We are on the cusp of technological change and the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, and we are transitioning to a low-carbon economy. FE has a vital role to play in that by providing the skilled workforce that the UK needs to be a global leader. In Lowestoft, the energy skills centre is being built at East Coast College. It will provide students with the skills required for exciting, well-paid jobs in the fast-emerging offshore wind sector.

FE also better prepares students for university. The University of Suffolk has come a long way in a short time. It works closely with FE colleges across the county. A properly funded FE sector is vital if the early success is to continue to be built on.

The T-level initiative is welcome, but to be a success it needs to be properly funded. In towns such as Lowestoft, the college is an important component part of the local community and civic society.

I have got to the end without mentioning the “B” word, but I will do so now. Whatever happens with Brexit, there is no getting away from the fact that the British economy is competing in a global market. Our people are the engine of our success. At present, due to a poorly funded FE sector, we are stuttering along in third gear. It is time to fill the tank—or, should I say, charge the battery—so that we are running in top gear.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank my fellow west country MP, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), for bringing forward this timely debate.

City College Plymouth has been on something of a rollercoaster ride in recent years. The college went into financial crisis last autumn, with a series of changes in principal. The current interim principal, Penny Wycherley, has been outstanding in steadying the ship and getting ready for her successor to start this year, but we need to acknowledge that the college is in financial crisis, and that is for a number of reasons.

First, the cuts to the FE budget have reduced the overall amount of money that the college has to spend. Changes in the way that funding is allocated have disproportionately hurt many colleges in the far south-west. The college has taken on huge financial capital liabilities in building the rather brilliant new STEM hub in Plymouth, which is delivering not only for City College, but for the wider city and the priorities of the local enterprise partnership. That has contributed to an exceptionally high level of recruitment of learners aged 16 to 19, meeting the local skills gap.

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My hon. Friend is making an important point about capital expenditure. The previous Labour Government had a Building Colleges for the Future programme, which was cancelled in austerity times. Now, many college estates simply cannot keep pace, including in Chesterfield.

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The lack of funding has meant that City College Plymouth has been unable to keep up with many of the repairs on its old building, leading to leaking roofs. It has not been able to replace technology with what it needs and has moved to leasing technology. It now faces financial barriers in moving off leasing to get the latest technology it needs.

Funding has also had a huge impact on college staff, who have not been given a cost of living pay rise or any other pay rise this year. That is not because they are not brilliant—they are exceptional—but because there is simply no money in the coffers for the college to do that. In an economy where the skills FE college staff have are in high demand, that means we are losing talent and skills. In particular, the engineering staff can earn salaries of £10,000 more simply by leaving the college and the jobs they love, and that is not right.

We need colleges like City College Plymouth to be motoring. It is a forward-thinking college. It has just launched its fantastic marine autonomy course, which will equip our young people with the skills they need to work in Plymouth’s world-class marine autonomy sector. Importantly, it will retrain people who work on the more heavy engineering side of the marine industries in the updated skills they need to succeed in a much more integrated digital marine environment.

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My hon. Friend is making a passionate case for his local college. I had hoped to do a similar thing for my local college, Calderdale College, but as the clock is ticking down, I am not going to get the opportunity. Calderdale College has been forced to close its outreach centres, cut English for speakers of other languages by 50% and close some adult learning classes completely. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is counter to the social mobility that we all agree is so important?

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend.

The key message I want the Minister to take away is that we are all on her side in her battle with the Treasury. We are all ready, but we must resolve to not just talk a good talk about FE; we have to not vote for cuts to FE, and we have to make clear to Ministers, whether we are on the Government or the Opposition Benches, that we will not support further cuts to FE. An FE lecturer has tweeted me to say that people want:

“A real increase to bridge the gap, not just make it less small.”

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It is great to see so much support for this debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) secured, and for his letter, even at this time of complete distraction.

I enjoyed and benefited from a traditional and formal further education at a school sixth form, Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne. There are still some very good examples of that education in my constituency of Northampton South. My focus today, however, is on FE colleges such as Northampton College and Moulton College, which serve my residents.

As speaking time is extremely short, I will make two quick points. More investment and spending on FE, like other public spending, does not have to mean higher tax rates. It does mean higher tax take, though, and the two are not the same. With a happy circularity, that higher tax take is brought about by higher productivity, which is itself brought about in large measure by better and more relevant skills and training, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said. Clearly, FE is key.

A good measure of the pressure from voters for the B word, as already referenced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), related to migration levels. With a reduction in migration, the need for higher level skills and training is even greater. The incentive for employers to support and demand them is all the more obvious as the need to get more out of scarcer labour and therefore pay people more grows. So it is time for us to ensure that the Government are the fairy godmother for the Cinderella service referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) to ensure a glittering and glorious educational future for our country.

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In Cornwall tomorrow there is a meeting with parents and people with special educational needs because they are being told that their days will go from five days to three. As my hon. Friend says, investing in people for the future is the right to do.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that comment, which stands in its own right as a very good intervention.

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I apologise to Members who have not been called, but I am afraid time has beaten us and I now have to call the Front-Bench speakers.

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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and the Backbench Business Committee on securing this debate today. In the time I have available I cannot do justice to the multitude of speeches made, but Members have shown a sharp eye for details about travel, EMAs, keeping rural and other colleges going, unused space, capacity opportunities, FE in the global market and the drop in level 2 and 3 qualifications.

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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No, I am not taking any interventions.

It is hugely important that FE is getting the attention it deserves; it is heartening and unprecedented in this year. Members have spent half the Session raising FE funding and raised related issues in recent education questions. The excellent Westminster Hall debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), who is in his place, showed that not new challenges, not new issues, but new urgency was required from the Government, given the state of FE funding. The recent statistics from the Love Our Colleges and Raise the Rate campaigns have highlighted that brilliantly.

We know that the statistics are a standing rebuke to the failure of all three Governments in the past decade to fund FE adequately. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that spending and skills fell by £3 billion in real terms between 2010 and 2011. Those needing second and third chances have been hard hit and adult education has seen its budget cut by almost half. According to the Association of Colleges,

“Over the last ten years, colleges have had to deal with an average funding cut of 30%...Further education is the only part of the education budget to have had year-on-year cuts since 2010.”

The skills Minister knows all that and, to her credit, has tried to push her colleagues in Government, the Secretary of State and the Chancellor, on the funding envelope, but so far answer comes there none. This is at a time when the massive uncertainties around Brexit and its future impact on our economy make the role of FE in delivering new hope and skills all the more essential than at any time in the past 20 years.

Despite a unified sector lobby of the Government last autumn on the need for the Government to reverse their damaging cuts, the Chancellor has persistently failed to acknowledge it. In his financial Budget of October 2018 he talked about schools getting little extras, but FE did not even get the crumbs. Both he and the Education Secretary cannot be oblivious to the demands not only of the colleges but of everyone else involved in the world of FE—the training providers who make up 60% to 70% of delivery; the employers who see skills programmes, both highly specific and generic, as essential to their success; and the LEPs, combined authorities and mayors, all of whom see such things as essential to success in the 2020s. As a consequence, the fabric of sustainability for colleges has become fretted and threadbare. Last year, the Department stated that there could be a best-case scenario of 80 colleges at financial risk and a worst-case scenario of 150.

The National Education Union’s briefing states that colleges have suffered from cuts in activities such as tutorials, enrichment activities and additional courses. The Sixth Form Colleges Association has said similar things. Students have progressively had financial support reduced since the education maintenance allowance went, and the bursary fund that replaced it was insufficient. I know that the principal and teachers at the superb Blackpool and The Fylde College are moving qualifications across the piece, and they think action is overdue.

The Government must reassess urgently how they fund their apprenticeship programme. Last week Government stats showed that the apprenticeship starts between August 2018 and January 2019, two years from the levy launch, are still beneath the number of apprenticeship starts for 2016-17. A large part of that is because level 2 apprenticeship starts have fallen by more than a third in the space of a year. It is increasingly apparent that the Government levy is not designed or fit for purpose for SMEs or non-levy payers, as the Association of Employment and Learning Providers—and Mark Dawe have consistently argued. We need to have a situation in which non-levy payers can train apprentices for small businesses, as some are having to turn them away.

We have seen apprenticeship figures go up, but the costs go up as well, so we have a Government, as the hon. Member for Gloucester emphasised in his speech, who need to take action at both ends of the cycle. Qualifications at levels 5 to 7 need to work. We need to sustain the fuel for them, but, as we have heard, levy payers and SMEs are starved of cash. The Government will seek to address some of the drops in qualifications through T-levels, but the money will not be seen in full until 2021-22 and we have no idea whether it will be sufficient. If there is a capacity issue, and, as we hope, T-levels take off, what capacity will the colleges have to deliver them if no additional funding is allocated by the Chancellor? Where are the institutions supposed to deliver them? Even more crucially, how will we bring them to fruition in the 2020s? Our concern is that setting T-levels simply as a competitor to A-levels will be counterproductive to their take-up and viability. We have to focus on 16 to 18-year-olds at level 3 standard whose preparation has been largely geared towards taking A-levels. Assuming that that will fly for T-levels is a risky strategy.

The AOC has said that the Government need to have a base rate increase of £1,000 per student as a minimum, so will the Government commit to that? Successful delivery requires teaching staff, as we have heard, with specialist industry expertise, up-to-date equipment and smaller class sizes. Average college pay is £30,000 compared with £37,000 in schools, and it significantly lags behind industry. The University and College Union, nationally and its many excellent campaigns countrywide, has said the same for years. Who will actually teach the T-levels? Existing teachers who have received very little in funding for years for CPD or new teachers?

The UCU spelt out in crisp terms in its submission to MPs for this debate what they ask Chancellor and the Education Secretary to do. Pay has fallen in value by 25% in real terms since 2009. Teachers in FE colleges earn on average £7,000 less than teachers in schools. We hear a lot about red lines these days, but will the Minister commit to a red line for her Department to get that changed? Since 2010, around 24,000 teachers have left the FE sector: a third of the total teaching workforce. What will the Minister do to ensure that colleges can increase the pay of teachers and ensure that we have a qualified workforce to teach T-levels after their introduction?

It is clear from what we have heard today that more and more Members across this House, especially in this Chamber, know that FE is an essential factor in delivering the fair, socially mobile, economic and community strategies that we will need in the 2020s. We in the Labour party, with our new national education service plans and now the launch of our lifelong learning commission, see FE as an essential building block to achieve that process. Progression, progression, progression is stamped through everything that we need to do in this area as through a stick of Blackpool rock. For now and for today, what Members in this House—all of them—require from the Government is something a little more short term and modest. If the Minster wills the ends, she must will the means. She must require from the Government something a little more. We must commit here and now to start to make good on the promises and the rhetoric that have so far not been backed up with the funding that FE needs, particularly from the Treasury. She and the Treasury must hear loud and clear all of the excellent speeches and demands, and praise for their colleges and training providers, that Members in this House have spoken of here today.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), ably abetted by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), on securing this debate, which follows on from our debate on college funding on 21 January. That 45-odd colleagues attended demonstrates the considerable concern across party boundaries about further education funding. I wonder whether that is a record for a Westminster Hall debate—perhaps the Clerks will let us know.

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Will the Minister give way?

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Only once—I have a lot to say and not much time.

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I am grateful. If the Minister looks around the Chamber, she will see many colleagues who represent areas that have not benefited from globalisation. As we move into a skills-based economy, may I urge her, on behalf of the people of Cornwall, to strengthen every sinew when she goes to the Treasury to argue for this money? We are desperate for these skills.

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I will come to that point in a minute.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I would love to give way to lots of hon. Members, but time does not allow. I will make some progress.

FE delivers not only high-quality provision for 16 to 19-year-olds but lifelong learning, which was mentioned briefly. As we heard in a moving story from one hon. Member, it gives people chances to learn that they never had as a young person and the opportunity to retrain when their skills become outdated, to gain higher qualifications and to move along the career path. It also provides patient and caring support for those who are struggling to gain basic skills, opportunities for families to learn together and support for parents to help their children, as we all want to help ours. Although further education’s breadth is its strength, that breadth makes it hard to define: it is not school, but it is not university, so we need to articulate a clear vision.

As hon. Members have noted, funding per student has not kept up with costs. For 16 to 19-year-olds, we have protected the base rate of funding at £4,000 until the end of this spending review period, but that has been eroded by inflation. The Association of Colleges and the Raise the Rate campaign’s funding impact survey report have highlighted many of the issues and financial challenges. Reductions in 16-to-19 funding over recent years have partly been due to falling numbers of students; the number of 16 to 18-year-olds in the population has been falling for 10 years. The level is now 10% lower than in 2008-09, which poses difficult challenges for the sector, but it will start to increase again from 2020.

FE colleges are complex institutions that need to manage ebbs and flows in training provision and finance. On average, vocational courses cost more per student than academic programmes, so we provide more funding for most vocational courses for 16 to 19-year-olds through the programme cost weights. Further education institutions therefore actually receive more funding per 16 to 19-year-old student than school sixth forms, but that is purely a reflection of the greater costs.

I think that the thrust of the message from my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester was that we need to do more to help our colleges. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke about the productivity potential of people who attend FE and about fairness. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) spoke about equality of opportunity; I wonder whether he might send a nice YouTube clip of this debate to the Chancellor, who I am sure would find it riveting. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) rightly noted that, despite it all, 81% of colleges are rated as good or outstanding.

Our debates on FE put the case for it front and centre as a driver of social mobility. Bearing in mind the precious little time we have had today, I am sure that the opportunity for part 2 of this debate will come very shortly. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Gordon Marsden), spoke about T-levels, which will receive an additional £500 million in funding when they are rolled out. In fact, it was in Clacton that I met a woman who said probably one of the most poignant things I have ever heard. She had left school with no qualifications and was a single parent with three children, but she had gone back and done level 2, level 3 and level 4 qualifications. When I met her, she was doing level 5. I asked her why she had done it—what had suddenly inspired her to do it when her children were in their teens? She said, “Because I thought I was worth it.” There is nothing better to hear.

Wages of FE staff are lower than in schools. FE staff are incredibly committed individuals who carry on because of the demonstrable difference that they make to young people’s lives. Further education colleges are independent and set their own wages, but that does not make recruitment and retention any easier.

Differences in life expectancy were briefly mentioned. One of the most significant correlators with poor health is level of education. Better-educated people have better health; I say that as a former public health Minister. The issue needs to be highlighted, and there may be an opportunity to expand this campaign into questions of health—I put that forward as a suggestion, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe will take it on board.

One hon. Member spoke about second chances, and we often talk about third or fourth chances. I have had the privilege of seeing those fourth chances change people’s lives.

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I congratulate the Minister and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on their speeches. One of the great issues in my constituency is mature students who had a family early or who did not have much interest in education at school but pursued an interest in it at a later stage. Further education can give them that opportunity, as it does at South Eastern Regional College in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that mature students need opportunities in the same way that young people do?

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Very much so. This is absolutely about those second, third and fourth chances.

My hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Steve Brine) and for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), both former superb Ministers, are now putting their weight behind the campaign to raise the profile of FE and highlight just how important it is for the prospects of young and—never let us forget—older people.

I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) met the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—keep on meeting her. We also heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) and my hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for York Outer (Julian Sturdy), for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), among many others. They all made excellent contributions.

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I hoped to speak in this debate on behalf of Askham Bryan College and York College, two outstanding colleges in York. I urge the Minister to ensure that further education colleges have a fully professional mental health service, because the levels of self-harm, eating disorders and even attempted suicide are way above the national average. Will she respond to that point?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. There are younger people, and indeed older people, for whom the school education system has not worked for whatever reason, who probably have a history of failing external examinations and who are often quite vulnerable or have special needs and all the associated problems that go with it.

We are listening to a wide range of feedback from many sources, including hon. Members present, and we are looking at the efficiency and resilience of the FE sector. The post-18 review will take a systematic view of provision and funding across post-18 education. We are also looking at levels 4 and 5, where we know that we need a much wider programme. If I had time, I would love to talk about the national retraining scheme, a partnership between the Government, the TUC and the CBI that we hope to roll out later in the year.

I must say to the shadow Minister that comparing apprenticeships today with apprenticeships before the 2017 reforms is like comparing apples and pears. I know that the apprenticeship system is not perfect, but believe me, in National Apprenticeship Week, I saw the extraordinary progress that has been made in the past year.

I am very aware that there are non-levy employers who are not yet on the apprenticeship service, and I want them to be on it as soon as possible. We are currently at the mercy of procurements and training providers. With procurements it never feels as if we are getting the right answer, but I assure hon. Members that all the levy money is recycled into the apprenticeships system.

I have been to south Devon, Bradford, Uxbridge, Harlow, Gloucester and many other places. Some colleges are thriving and some are struggling, but it is clear to me that they all have a motivation that is rarely seen in any other sector. We have put in £470 million to help colleges to restructure, but until we collectively recognise the added value that FE colleges give us, we will not see the changes in funding that are needed. That is how we give people a chance to turn their lives around and ensure that whatever their background, wherever they come from, whatever their family do and whoever they know, they too can get a great job and a career.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester and the hon. Member for Scunthorpe once again on their campaign, and I know that they will now be joined by many others. For me, they are pushing at an open door. Amid the cries for schools funding and the concerns for universities, FE can get lost. However, if we accept not only the personal gain for individuals but the potential productivity gains for the country, the case to the Chancellor is surely clear. With tin hats on, we continue into battle to make the case for further education.

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This debate has been 90 minutes of passionate appreciation of and support for further education colleges. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I also thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who is my co-skipper of the campaign for fairer funding for further education colleges, and all hon. Members who have spoken today for their huge message: “Let’s get the right resources for these national engines of skills, aspiration and social mobility.”

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Order. Before we move on, may I thank all hon. Members for the courtesy with which this debate has been handled? In one form or another, all hon. Members who remained in the Chamber and sought to intervene got in—my congratulations.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

NHS Pension Scheme: Tapered Annual Allowance

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the tapered annual allowance on NHS pension scheme members.

I have been aware of this issue for some time, as a local MP and as a former pensions law practitioner. Primarily through the work of the journalist Josephine Cumbo at the Financial Times, it has come to light that it is significantly more widespread and has much more serious implications for the NHS than I had originally understood.

I do not want to take up too much time on what the annual allowance taper is and how it works, partly because it is boring and incredibly complex, but a small amount of background is needed before explaining why it is an issue in the NHS and the consequences that seem to be flowing from it.

The tapered annual allowance was introduced from 6 April 2016. In short, it meant that from the 2016-17 tax year, a reduced annual allowance may apply to all pension savings by or on behalf of a member, depending on the level of taxable income within the tax year. It applies to individuals with a threshold income of more than £110,000 and an adjusted income of more than £150,000. For every £2 that an individual’s adjusted income goes over £150,000, their annual allowance for that year reduces by £1. The minimum reduced annual allowance someone can have is £10,000.

It will not be a surprise that the calculations of threshold and adjusted incomes are not simple in the least. They are massively confusing and make it very difficult to predict what tax bill will be incurred. As it cuts the annual allowance for the current year, an individual has no idea how much pension saving they can make.

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The Financial Times reported that some doctors, GPs and dentists will receive a potential tax bill of £80,000. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we and this Government have a duty to ensure that NHS staff have all the information so that no one faces unexpected tax bills?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the key issues is that because it reduces the tax allowance in the current year of work, it is impossible to work out what the annual allowance will reduce to, and people cannot plan. I will go on to raise some examples from my own constituents, as I am sure other hon. Members will want to do.

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A constituent told me that he has been advised to take early retirement to avoid taxes. Does my hon. Friend agree that retaining long-serving consultants with experience in their fields is vital to the NHS’s success?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why the issue is so important. I appreciate that we are talking about people who earn a lot of money and who have good pension schemes, but there is a serious potential knock-on effect of very senior doctors turning down hours or taking early retirement.

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I received an email from a consultant who works in my constituency, informing me that one of the unintended consequences of the new arrangement is that he has reduced the number of hours he works in the NHS.

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That is exactly right. I asked for a Treasury Minister to reply to this debate, because the underlying legislation is a Treasury issue, but it is important to have a Health Minister here today to hear at first hand the stories that are being raised by MPs.

In recent months, it has become increasingly apparent that the pension tax rules are resulting in unexpected tax charges being levied on a large number of GPs, senior doctors, surgeons and consultants right across the UK. I believe that if the issue is not addressed, serious capacity gaps in the NHS will only be made worse.

In Scotland, 7.6% of consultant posts are vacant, and more than half of those have been vacant for more than six months. There is a similar picture in the NHS in all other parts of the United Kingdom. In a recent survey by the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, more than 40% of the doctors questioned said that pension taxation changes had led them to change their plans and retire earlier than expected.

The way in which the tapered annual allowance operates means a significantly reduced annual allowance ceiling is hitting many of the NHS professionals that I, and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), mentioned in their mid to late careers. As their entire income is taken into account for the purposes of tapering, the threshold can be breached even by doing non-pensionable work, including covering for absent colleagues, extra programmed activities or waiting list initiatives. NHS staff on pay-as-you-earn cannot avoid the notional pension input amount calculation. As a result, many consultants are being hit with unexpected five-figure tax charges. A number are now dropping extra work, turning down hours or going part-time to negate or avoid the penalties.

Of course high earners should pay their fair share, and all the doctors who have contacted me want to do so, but they are paying rates of more than 60% as a result of the taper. Some are paying effective rates of more than 100%. Many consultants who continue to do non-pensionable overtime are effectively paying the Government to go to work, while receiving no additional pension benefit.

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The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful, forensic speech on this critical issue facing the national health service. Several of my constituents have been in touch about it. One consultant mentioned that the impact of this issue on NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde will be huge, because waiting list initiatives ensure that the health board does not receive penalties, so it militates against efficiency in the national health service and will cost more in the long run. It is a total false economy. Surely the Minister can take action with the Treasury to get this sorted out quickly.

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The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. Our constituencies share a health board. The examples of people who work for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde show exactly the consequences and knock-on effects.

One surgeon contacted me to tell me that he was hit with a tax bill of £62,000 because he received a national award. People who receive a bonus or a pay rise can find themselves with a whopping tax penalty as a consequence. Rigid pay and pension rules in the NHS mean that their ability to mitigate the issue is pretty much non-existent, certainly compared with people in the private sector, because there is not the flexibility to reduce contributions or request cash in lieu of pension if there is a danger of breaching the allowance. The only option, as we have heard in Members’ examples, is to opt out of the scheme altogether or drastically reduce working hours. This issue is becoming a huge driver not only of early retirement, which in itself is extremely serious, but of enforced reduced working hours. That is having an impact on NHS care and creating lost capacity. Waiting times, which are a problem in various areas across the UK, are hit because these perverse rules mean that consultants refuse the overtime that is needed to help clear the backlog.

The investigation by the Financial Times found that the issue had increased the risk of delays in cancer diagnosis in some parts of the UK and lengthened waiting times for procedures such as hip replacements. Critical areas such as intensive care and radiology are also being affected. One consultant said that about 50 fewer patients were being seen per week in the cancer clinics they cover, as a result of doctors turning down extra shifts.

A consultant who lives in my constituency contacted me following receipt of a tax charge of £29,000, despite doing no work outside the NHS. He told me that he will now have to drop a session of clinical work to try to ensure that it does not happen again, and that he is actively considering early retirement, having reluctantly started to reach the conclusion that there is no incentive for him to continue his career beyond the age of 60. He has been forced into that position by the clear unintended consequences of the pension system.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate; the interest today shows that there is probably support for a Back-Bench business debate. He is absolutely right to highlight the huge financial penalties that people are incurring. One of my constituents in Barrachnie is looking at a £15,000 bill, which he got at the end of January. That is not helpful. He has already told me that he is planning to retire early. Surely these examples only make the case to the Government that they need to take action.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising another specific case. I hope the Minister will bear in mind the added weight of evidence.

Another of my constituents, who has worked as an NHS constituent for 14 years at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow told me that he is employed on a 40-hour per week full-time contract and provides eight hours per week of additional clinical work, making 48 hours in total. He does not do any private practice outside the NHS, but he was hit with an unexpected bill of nearly £17,000 as a result of the tapered annual allowance. The only way the consultant can avoid those charges is to reduce his income below the various thresholds, and the only way he can reduce his income is to reduce the amount of work he does for the NHS. He has told me that he has no desire to do that and would happily volunteer to do extra work occasionally at weekends to tackle waiting lists or fill gaps in the service, but the tax implications make that impossible and he has already stopped doing any extra work.

Another consultant from East Renfrewshire with 16 years’ experience—eight as a consultant—told me that he was actively declining extra work to support stretched services in order to avoid the tax penalties. That means that he does not apply for the discretionary points that are awarded for additional work that is taken on above the normal daily remit, such as developing new services, research and teaching. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) said, that impacts not just on the daily running of services, but on the development of a culture of excellence within the NHS.

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I apologise for missing the first couple of minutes of the debate. My hon. Friend is a great thinker on pensions, which is the main reason I wanted to come here today, and I want to ask him a very simple question. Does he wish to dispense with the annual allowance and lifetime limit, or does he want a special dispensation for senior NHS workers, who are quite high-income earners?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments, which are undeserved. There is a wider issue of the general complexity of the systems of reliefs and allowances in the UK pensions system. I hope not that there will be one single dispensation for one area of the public sector, but that we start to recognise that we need to look at the way the system is operating more generally and to work out whether some of the allowances and reliefs are actually necessary or effective, and whether they should be subject to a broader review.

A recent report showed that over 50% of respondents reported using the NHS “scheme pays” facility to pay off their unexpected tax charges. However, this does not work for all cases, and the amount is effectively treated as a loan that is then paid back from the retirement benefit, with interest charged against the pension at high rates. That means it is usually costlier than paying up front, particularly for younger members. I fear that this issue could see us sleepwalk into a deepening workforce crisis in the NHS and result in consultants leaving the NHS early, even though they still have the skills and experience we need. Those individuals are important not just for patients, but for junior doctors in terms of the training and mentoring they receive on the job.

The British Medical Association firmly believes that long-term changes to the pensions taxation system are required in order to remove the disincentives that exist, and I certainly agree. The Library’s excellent briefing on pensions taxation makes reference to the impact of changes in the annual allowance on the public sector, and notes that the 2017 report of the Doctors and Dentists Review Body requested more evidence about the impact of the annual and lifetime allowance on early departure rates. The Treasury indicated that it would consider revisions to the NHS pension scheme if there was evidence that the number of doctors and dentists taking early retirement as a result of its inflexibility was substantial.

I want to ask the Minister a series of questions, and I appreciate that she might not be able to cover them all today. A number of them fall within the remit of the Treasury, but hopefully she will be able to take those away and arrange for either herself or a Treasury Minister to get back to me. First, what discussions did the Treasury have with the Department of Health and Social Care when the tapered annual allowance was introduced, and was this ever flagged as a potential problem? Secondly, what evidence has the Treasury collected on the numbers of doctors and dentists taking early retirement, following the 2017 report? If the answer is none, why is that the case and when will analysis be carried out of the impact on changes to the lifetime and annual allowances on the NHS? If evidence has been collected, what were the findings of that analysis, and are any changes being considered?

Thirdly, what consideration has the Treasury given to a review of the annual allowance taper more generally, perhaps as part of a wider review into simplifying the incredibly complex system of reliefs and allowances in the UK pensions system? Finally, have the relevant Government Departments had any discussions with the relevant parties on whether permitting more individual flexibility in the NHS pension scheme could be a solution? That is something that NHS Employers is calling for. This issue is not specific to the NHS—I have heard in recent days from armed forces personnel—but it does appear to be an area with a particular problem.

Although I appreciate that many people will not hold great swathes of sympathy for individuals on such high earnings who will still receive high levels of retirement pension that most of our constituents can only dream of, the reality is that if this results in consultants with much-needed expertise turning down work or leaving the NHS altogether, it will have major implications for the provision of services and the quality of care our constituents receive right across the UK, whichever colour of Government is in control of their NHS.

I am sure that the Treasury did not intend these changes to force experienced and committed consultants, surgeons and GPs to do less work for the NHS, but this is the reality being faced in the hospitals that serve my constituents and the Minister’s. It is good that the British Medical Association and NHS Employers recognise that this is a serious concern and met last week to discuss it, but they have not agreed a solution or a joint action plan. In reality, the ball is in the Treasury’s court.

I absolutely respect and agree with the Government’s position that we need to get the balance right between encouraging saving and managing Government finances, but this issue cannot be easily ignored. Legitimate aims to restrict tax perks for the wealthiest in society are exposing ever increasing numbers of long-serving and highly experienced NHS workers to massive tax charges. If we want high quality care in the NHS in Scotland and across the UK, we need senior doctors who have devoted their professional lives to the care and wellbeing of our constituents. It is ludicrous for us to face a situation in which the pensions system is acting as a disincentive and effectively forcing consultants to choose between working for nothing and affecting patient care.

I hope that this debate provides the first opportunity for us to say clearly that, whether the answer lies in adding flexibility to strict NHS pay and pension terms or with the Treasury using this as a reason to take a fresh look at the ridiculously complicated tapered annual allowance, this is an unintended consequence of the UK’s complex pension regime, which we need to sort out quickly to let those consultants get back to work.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) for securing the debate; he made a characteristically thoughtful contribution.

We are the custodians of taxpayers’ money and need to manage the country’s finances in a way that gives value for money and allows us to live within our means. We also need to accept that when we make changes to the tax system, it changes people’s behaviour. I am grateful for the opportunity to look at these issues through the prism of the impact on the workforce in the national health service.

As my hon. Friend said, the annual allowance is a fiscal measure that operates across all pension schemes in both the public and private sectors. Alongside the lifetime allowance, the Government keep this measure under review to ensure that the benefit of tax relief on pension scheme contributions remains affordable. It is in fact one of the most expensive tax reliefs in the personal tax system. In 2015-16, income tax relief and employer national insurance contributions relief cost the Exchequer around £50 billion, with around two thirds going to higher-rate taxpayers. That is an important point to bear in mind, because we need to ensure that our tax system is progressive and managed efficiently. We will want to look at tax reliefs that favour the highest-rate taxpayers to ensure that our overall burden of tax is appropriate.

The reforms made to the lifetime and annual allowances in the previous two Parliaments are expected to save over £6 billion a year, and are necessary to deliver a fair system and to protect public finances. To ensure that the benefit the wealthiest pension savers receive is not disproportionate to that of other pension savers, the Government restrict the amount of tax relief available. The annual allowance does not taper below £10,000, and fewer than 1% of pension savers will have to reduce their saving or face an annual allowance charge because of this policy.

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Does the Minister agree that a potential issue is that this acts as a cap on the amount of tax relief that is given out? We know that this is not progressive in terms of higher-rate tax relief on pensions. Would it not be better for us to look at a system in which we have a flat rate of 25p, 28p or 30p in the pound, rather than the higher rate? That would mitigate, or mean that we did not need, those lifetime and annual allowances?

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I shall not stray into policy that is not mine and that belongs to Her Majesty’s Treasury—that is a very convenient way for me to duck the issue. It comes back to the point that the moment we start to introduce complexity into our tax and allowance system, it brings perverse incentives. The overall goal in recent years has been to bring our public finances back into kilter, having had excessive deficits. It is only natural that the Exchequer looks at where reliefs that are funded by the state are going to higher-rate taxpayers. That is where we have got to with regard to the impact on public sector pension schemes, which by their nature are as we describe.

The NHS pension scheme is a generous and valuable part of staff reward packages, and is one of the best schemes available, notwithstanding the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire. It is right and proper for all hard-working NHS staff to expect financial security in retirement after dedicating a lifelong career to looking after the nation’s health.

For some senior clinicians, the generosity of the scheme, combined with their comparatively high levels of pay, means that their pensions build up to a level that breaches tax limits. Both the annual and lifetime allowances encourage pension growth at a steadier rate that is more aligned with typical pension growth experienced across the general population. To illustrate that, under the 1995 section of the NHS pension scheme, members who accumulate pension benefits worth near the £1 million lifetime allowance will have built up a pension of around £46,000 a year, plus a tax-free lump sum of £138,000 on retirement. Pensions of that size provide substantial financial security in retirement, and it is right that the Government take steps to limit the tax incentive to save further.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about the impact on our NHS workforce. With respect to discussions between the Treasury and the Department on the introduction of the allowance, the 2015 manifesto committed to

“reducing the tax relief on pension contributions for people earning more than £150,000.”

That was a manifesto commitment we had to deliver. The tapered annual allowance fulfils that commitment and applies to all contributors to pensions, in both the public and private sectors. The impacts of the change, including on the public sector, were carefully considered at the time.

My hon. Friend asked about the number of doctors and dentists taking early retirement. Data from the NHS pension scheme administrator shows that 494, 490 and 424 hospital doctors took voluntary early retirement in the financial years ending 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively. Those early retirements represented approximately a third of all hospital doctor retirements in those years. With respect to GPs, in 2016, 695 took early retirement; in 2017, 721 took early retirement; and in 2018, 588 took early retirement. Those figures represented more than half of all GP retirements in those financial years. With respect to dentists, 145 retired early in 2016, followed by 143 and 115 in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Those retirements represented approximately 40% of dental practitioner retirements in those years. There is clearly an impact on the behaviour of practitioners.

My hon. Friend asked what consideration the Treasury has given to a general review of the annual allowance taper and the broader system of reliefs in relation to pension saving. Those are matters for the Chancellor, and the Government will continue to review all aspects of pensions policy, in line with our annual assessment of the public finances.

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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She is highlighting some of the concerns that have been expressed about the unintended consequence of a capacity problem for the NHS as a result of the changes to pension relief. Given that health is a devolved issue in Wales, have the British Government received any communication from the Welsh Government expressing concern about the changes?

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I have not, but this is about the impact of the pension and tax regime on the sector. I am not aware of any conversations with the Treasury, but if the hon. Gentleman has concerns, I encourage him to make representations. There are always unintended consequences with any policy, and we always need to challenge the operation of our policies to make sure they are in the right place and to decide whether they need to be refined, tweaked or changed in any way.

The Government recognise that pension tax considerations will contribute to decisions by some senior clinicians to retire early or to reduce their NHS commitments. For those who wish to remain in the NHS pension scheme, the annual allowance is a disincentive to take on additional work and responsibilities —that is very clear. The extra income increases the impact of the tapered annual allowance.

Some clinicians may judge that a reduction in their current NHS commitments, while maintaining scheme membership, better serves their financial interests. Employers tell us that the reduction in service capacity can be difficult and that capacity is expensive to replace. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are listening carefully to the concerns raised by senior doctors and NHS employers about the impact of the tapered annual allowance.

That doctors may seek to limit or reduce their NHS commitments is of concern to Ministers, and something on which we are keeping a close eye. Maximising the participation of our clinical workforce is clearly essential to the delivery of our ambitions for the NHS. The quality and quantity of our workforce is always an important factor in the extent of the delivery of our objectives.

As an immediate step, the Department has sought to make available to NHS pension scheme members all possible flexibility under Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs legislation and the current fiscal framework for public sector pension schemes. The BMA asked that we extend the scope of the voluntary “scheme pays” facility—implemented by the NHS pension scheme—to cover the payment of tax charges from breaches of the tapered annual allowance.

We have done that, but we have also gone further. The NHS pension scheme’s voluntary “scheme pays” facility has also been extended to cover tax charges of less than £2,000, which means that, from tax year 2017-18, a member can elect for the scheme to pay 100% of their annual allowance charge to HMRC on their behalf. The “scheme pays” facility allows individuals to settle their tax charge without needing to find funds up front, but HMRC requires an adjustment to the benefits accrued by members if a defined benefit pension scheme pays an annual allowance charge. That adjustment must be just and reasonable, and with regard to normal actuarial practice.

Accordingly, the NHS pension scheme applies an interest rate to the charge paid on the member’s behalf. That charge is deducted from the capitalised value of the pension at retirement, with the interest rate set at the scheme discount rate. I recognise that, for some younger clinicians with many years before retirement, the compounding effect might influence the attractiveness of “scheme pays”, so I encourage members of the pension scheme to seek formal financial advice.

The Government will look at potential further measures. There is clearly considerable interest in this matter, and I assure hon. Members that we keep the impact of public sector pay and pensions policies under constant review, and take account of total reward and fiscal considerations. As my hon. Friend recognises, the issue is complex, and it is difficult for the Government to strike the right balance among competing interests. I do not think, however, that there is a case for exempting high-earning NHS staff, such as GPs and consultants, from a tax measure that is intended to apply to high-earning individuals. I also doubt that clinicians necessarily expect to be treated differently from other taxpayers.

The fiscal framework within which the NHS pension scheme operates is an important consideration. The NHS pension scheme, like most public service pension schemes, does not manage a fund of assets out of which pensions are paid. It is instead financed on a pay-as-you-go basis similar to that of the state pension, with contribution income defraying the cost of pensions in payment. Any change to scheme rules that provides flexibility could therefore have a significant effect on contribution income. That would have an impact on the Exchequer. We must balance that fiscal risk against the benefits of providing additional flexibility. Any proposed pension flexibility would be a matter for the Chancellor.

Clearly, this is a complex subject that we will have to keep under review in recognition of the fact that it drives behaviour in the NHS in a way that could cause us difficulties in the delivery of our overall commitments. We clearly want to retain the best, most qualified and expert staff in the NHS, and we need to be vigilant to ensure that our tax and pension benefits system does not stand in the way of delivering the best possible NHS.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Youth Inmates: Solitary Confinement

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered youth inmates in solitary confinement.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to lead this extremely important debate. Much of the focus in our criminal justice system is rightly on our failing probation system following privatisation and the rising violence in our prisons, but worryingly little attention is paid to what is going on in our youth estate—particularly to the children and young people detained there—and to the concerning use of solitary confinement.

It may come as a surprise to some people listening to our debate who know me well that I became interested in this issue, but it links closely to work we have been doing in the Education Committee on exclusions, children with special needs and disabilities, and the link between children who have undiagnosed special needs, disabilities and emotional problems being excluded and then ending up in our prison system.

What is happening to those children and young people is extremely worrying. Just before the debate started, I was saying to a colleague who sits on the Government Benches that the issue forms part of a wider picture. Although it is one for the Justice team, I hope the Minister talks closely to the Education team, as well as to social services and local government teams, about how money can be invested in our vulnerable children as early as possible to give them the best possible chance in life so that they do not end up in the criminal justice system.

No one wants to see a child sent to prison. That is a failure on the part of our societal infrastructure. Everyone would agree that, for any young child to go to prison, there must have been a failure somewhere in the support given to that child—at school or on the part of society or social services. We have failed a young person who ends up in our criminal justice system.

Young offenders institutions must balance punishing a child for committing a crime—there should of course be consequences for criminal behaviour—with the need for rehabilitation and the need to assist the child to go on to become a productive member of society who will not offend again. Having been a teacher for 11 years, I know that we should never give up on children, even when our patience has been tested to the absolute limit. I am sure that parents agree—we do not give up. If we have a child who has reached the point of being involved in criminal activity and is being rightly punished for it, youth offenders institutions should be the opportunity to turn that around and to start again.

Getting the correct balance between those goals should be the guiding principle of youth justice. Falling too far towards punishment and not addressing the problems that caused a child to offend in the first place—perhaps undiagnosed special needs or disabilities, or social and emotional problems—means that the child will reoffend immediately on release. All that we would have created is an older criminal. Falling too far towards rehabilitation means that the victims of the crime will feel let down by the system. The use of segregation in young offenders institutions does not create the right balance between those goals—between giving young people a consequence for their actions and an opportunity to set themselves on the right path for the future.

Let me be clear about what I mean by segregation. I do not mean time out as an immediate response to violent or disruptive behaviour, or situations in which children must be physically isolated for their own protection or the protection of others. Solitary confinement—segregation, isolation or whatever else we might call it—is the deliberate removal of an individual from association with others. It was defined by the prison and probation ombudsman in a 2015 “Learning lessons bulletin” as

“an extreme and isolating form of custody”.

Whatever the Minister might say in his remarks about solitary confinement and segregation—that children are not subject to solitary confinement—the Children’s Commissioner has been clear, as have the current and the previous chief inspector of prisons, that the conditions to which children are exposed fit the definition of solitary confinement.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. On the important point about a precise definition, or otherwise, does she agree that we need to get it fully and fairly established in the public mind so that we can determine year on year whether the problem is getting worse or improving? It does not help things if the goalposts change slightly, depending on the administration in place and how it does isolation or segregation.

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I completely agree. That seems to be a sensible way to go forward with the problem. If we are to look at whether the use of solitary confinement is increasing, it makes sense to have a clear definition that everyone understands.

Most adult prisons have a dedicated segregation wing or unit, sometimes known as a care and separation unit, which allows prisoners to be moved off the main residential wings. That is mirrored in young offenders institutions, despite the fact that they hold much younger people. The conditions and rules for secure training centres, which hold even younger children, are a little better—children there are isolated in their own rooms or cells, or in empty classrooms or spaces, for shorter spans of time. We cannot escape the fact, however, that some children and young people are being held in conditions of isolation that are comparable to those for adults.

When assessing whether our existing segregation rules are fit for purpose, it makes sense to look first at the international rules setting out standards for the use of solitary confinement. The UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners, also known as the Mandela rules, state that given the devastating effect of solitary confinement on physical and mental health, it should be used only in exceptional cases, as a last resort, for as short a time as possible, after authorisation by a competent authority and subject to independent review.

The Mandela rules prohibit entirely the use of indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement—lasting more than 15 days—alongside its use for particularly vulnerable groups. Rule 45 explicitly states:

“The imposition of solitary confinement should be prohibited in the case of prisoners with mental or physical disabilities when their conditions would be exacerbated by such measures.”

Given that prohibition of solitary confinement for more than 15 days and for those with mental health disabilities whose conditions would be exacerbated by solitary, among whom we could reasonably include children, the UK clearly and worryingly appears to be straying into territory that might violate the Mandela rules.

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Does the hon. Lady agree not only that children of themselves are obviously vulnerable, but that the children she is talking about are particularly vulnerable? A disproportionate number of children with autistic spectrum disorder are in prison, as are many children with mental health issues and many who have been in care.

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I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. We know that from overwhelming evidence. So many children in our prison system have undiagnosed special educational needs and disabilities. As I said, what motivated my interest in this issue was all the work we are doing on children with special needs and disabilities, as well as the desperate need for early intervention and early support. When these children finally get to the point at which we as a society have failed them—when they are in prison—we should be pouring in money and resources, because how else will they ever have a chance to have some sort of effective life?

There are concerns right across the board about how segregation is used in the youth estate. Last October, after investigating those concerns, the Children’s Commissioner published her report on the use of segregation in youth custody. In it, she found excessive use of segregation in the youth estate, with children locked up and isolated in greater numbers, despite the overall numbers of those in custody falling at the same time—we are sending fewer children to prison, but those we are sending are more likely to end up in solitary confinement.

The Children’s Commissioner also found that the average length of segregation had doubled, with about 70% of episodes of segregation believed to have lasted more than a week, and many of those episodes involving the repeated segregation of the same children and young people. Again coming at that from an education point of view, I would say that any behaviour consequence that just results in the same behaviour over and over again is failing—it is not working, and it is time to try something else.

While the Children’s Commissioner notes that some children choose to self-isolate for a variety of reasons, which may be behind some rise in the figures, that does not account for all of it. If individuals self-isolate on a regular basis, surely that is an indication of serious problems with that young person. By self-isolating, they choose not to be part of the collective society of the institution, which is bad for their wellbeing, increases loneliness and isolation, and hampers their safety and mental wellness.

The Children’s Commissioner is not the only one who has raised concerns; many others have done so for a considerable time. The Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health all condemn the use of segregation and its impact on young people. They criticise the Ministry of Justice’s continued use of the practice. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently argued that punishment for punishment’s sake brings out the worst in some young people, and does nothing to help them become positive members of society.

Rather than improving behaviour, solitary confinement fails to address the underlying causes, and creates problems with reintegration. I return to my previous point: what is the purpose of putting people in prison? Surely, it is twofold: it is punishment and consequence for their behaviour, and it is a chance for them to rehabilitate to become productive members of society. If we make that behaviour even worse by putting them in solitary, we are failing, because all they will do is leave prison, return to society, reoffend and cause grief and hassle for the people living in their areas.

The Howard League for Penal Reform, which does some excellent work in this area and provides legal advice and support to children in custody, reported more requests for assistance in respect of isolation than use of force. More people go to it upset about their child being isolated than about force, despite the fact that the media tend to cover the use of force more than they do isolation. In the written evidence submitted to the Joint Committee on Human Rights during its inquiry, a number of cases were highlighted, all of which make worrying reading and show that the numbers highlighted by the Children’s Commissioner are not just statistics but represent real children being harmed by segregation, who will go on to commit crimes again in their local area.

The evidence included a 16-year-old white British boy who was placed in isolation, locked in his cell for 23 hours a day for days on end and allowed out only for 30 minutes of solitary exercise. A 16-year-old black British boy was placed in a segregation unit, locked in his cell all day for 37 days and allowed out only with three members of staff. A 15-year-old Asian boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was segregated while his mental health deteriorated. A 17-year-old black British girl with a history of trauma was forced on to a behavioural management plan that was reportedly not compliant with the Secure Training Centre Rules 1998, and was threatened with segregation if she did not comply. The mother of a 17-year-old black British boy said he spent over a month in segregation, and reported significant mental confusion in her son afterwards. Just as worryingly, the Howard League has reported that young people who experience solitary confinement often have their access to legal advice and support denied or restricted. Will the Minister look into this issue urgently?

Some might say, “It may be slightly excessive, but these children committed crimes and deserve to be punished.” They may say, “If the prison needs to segregate them to keep order, it should be allowed to.” But we have to look back to our guiding principle of balancing punishment and rehabilitation. It is undoubtable from the evidence I mentioned that the balance is wrong; if we had struck the right balance, incidents of segregation would be going down, not up. It is vital that we design our system to address the underlying issues that led to the young person being sent to prison in the first place if we want to prevent future crime.

The biggest effect that segregation has on young people is on their mental health, contributing to what is already a severe and dangerous mental health epidemic right across our prison system. According to a survey by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, more than 30,000 people in the whole prison system are reported to have a mental health or wellbeing issue at any one time. That is around one in three of the average monthly prison population, which is a higher rate than in the general population, where one in four people are believed to have a mental health issue. However, given the poor screening and under-resourcing in relation to prisoner mental health, the widely held belief is that the rate is much higher.

The Howard League’s work on segregation—particularly its legal work to represent offenders who are subject to segregation—found that many prisoners who are removed from association are disturbed or damaged individuals who have behaved in a particular way as a result of their vulnerabilities, and who present no risk to security. Research published by the Prison Reform Trust into segregation units found that segregation was harmful to health and wellbeing, as over half of segregated prisoners said they had problems with three or more of the following: anger, anxiety, insomnia, depression, concentration and self-harm.

I keep making the same point: the problems will not go away by isolating children and young people—they will only get worse, which means these people will go out and reoffend. The Prison Reform Trust’s “Deep Custody” report found that more than two thirds of the 49 officers interviewed in segregation units said that most or the vast majority of segregated prisoners had mental health needs. Many offenders said they believed their mental health was a factor in the decision to segregate them.

Not only is the Ministry of Justice segregating people excessively, but it is doing it to those who are already dangerously at risk. The reason why that is so unhealthy and why we should be so appalled at the segregation of vulnerable young people is that a wealth of evidence shows that segregation has an adverse effect on anyone, let alone someone already with a mental health condition. The keys aspects of segregation noted by the Prison Reform Trust—social isolation, limited sensory stimulation, enforced idleness and increased, continuous control—are known factors in damaging an individual’s health and wellbeing.

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I do not know the answer to this question and I wonder if the hon. Lady does: is there a proven link between segregation and suicide risk?

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I would not want to say so without having the facts in front of me, but that is an interesting question, and I hope the Minister will pick it up in his remarks. There is certainly a link through the effect on children’s mental health problems. We will have to see what the evidence says, but it would suggest there is a link.

Symptoms found in children who have been segregated include anxiety, depression, unprovoked anger, lack of impulse control, cognitive disturbances, hypersensitivity, paranoia and full-blown psychosis—to name just a handful. Those are not just minor issues. Indeed, the Prison Service’s own guidance on segregation shows that it recognises the potentially damaging effect of segregation on mental health and on those who may be at risk of suicide and self-harm. Prison Service Order 1700 states:

“research into the mental health of prisoners held in solitary confinement indicates that for most prisoners, there is a negative effect on their mental well-being and that in some cases the effect can be serious.”

Not only does solitary confinement have a detrimental impact on the mental health of the children, but it increases their chances of harm to themselves and others and makes them much more vulnerable to reoffending when they are released.

Those reports and findings relate to investigations and studies in the adult estate, but considering the widespread problems in the youth estate, it is more than reasonable to assume that the same issues are present in the youth estate too. It is certainly reasonable to accept that the proven negative impact on adults applies more so to children and young people, particularly when it is a widely accepted medical opinion that mental development, during which individuals are more susceptible to mental harm, does not cease until around the age of 25. Children who are more susceptible and more likely to be influenced are at risk of greatest harm.

The impact of segregation on children and young people goes beyond just the medical, because of its widespread use to restrict the ability of a child or young person to be part of purposeful activity in the institution holding them. That restricts their ability to take part in classes, studies, workshops or training that helps them increase their chances of not reoffending and of achieving a better life on the outside after their release, compared with when they went in. The Minister will know how desperately low literacy and numeracy levels are among children in prison, and how that limits their ability and chances when they are released. Surely, taking them away from study would have a further negative effect when they are released.

In theory, removal from free association, through segregation, should not prohibit access to education, but in many cases children are in their cells all day and allowed out for only 30 minutes. They do not always have access to education packs while in their cells. That has a negative mental impact. If they had something to do, and something to keep them occupied and busy in a constructive way, it would help to stave off the damaging effects of isolation on their mental health.

When the child comes out, they are further behind their peers, have even lower prospects and become vulnerable to reoffending. These children will not leave prison to go on to become productive members of society; they will leave and reoffend. That is failing children, it is failing victims of crime and it is failing society. The only thing that is changing is that young offenders are becoming adult offenders, so it is time for the Ministry of Justice to think again.

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The debate can last until 4 pm. We have time for Back-Bench speeches until 3.37 pm, when we will go on to the Front-Bench spokespeople. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition, 10 minutes for the Minister and the three minutes at the end for Emma Hardy to sum up the debate.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). She and I talked about this issue before the debate, so there will be a lot of overlap in our presentations. I am glad that she has interpreted the title of the debate very widely. It talks about youth inmates, which includes not only children but young adults. I will say a little bit about that in a minute.

As well as the hon. Lady’s Select Committee, the Justice Committee published a report, “The treatment of young adults in the criminal justice system”, some time ago in 2016-17, because we were concerned about the effectiveness of the treatment of young adults in the justice system. We looked at the needs of young offenders, their characteristics and the effective ways of working with them. We also went on a visit—this was in the days when Select Committees could go on international visits—to New York and Boston. Hon. Members may view the American system of governance as much stricter and tougher than ours. I could not disagree more. We found a much more liberal approach to the situation, with children treated kindly and efficiently, which had an enormous impact on their rehabilitation.

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Before the hon. Gentleman moves on, although I fully accept his experience on his visit to that part of the United States, does he agree that, given the complexity of its judicial system, there may well be rapid and significant variations from state to state in the United States of America?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. However, we chose New York because it has some of the toughest criminals. It was interesting to see how the situation was dealt with in that sort of tough environment. As I said, we found a very liberal approach.

Back here, we interviewed the parents of people who had been to youth offender institutes or prison, and I have to say that the feedback was utterly tragic. The personal circumstances of the individuals there had to be heard to be believed. We have to do all that we can to stop those sorts of occurrences. We looked at a wide range of ages—from 10 to 24—encompassing everything that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle talked about, and one thing we found was that men and boys account for a disproportionate number of people going through the criminal justice system. There is something about men and boys that needs to be tackled, and seriously.

One thing we looked at was the neuroscience involved—neuroscience has become a very trendy subject these days. A lot of work has been done on how the brain develops and matures. The evidence we heard showed that the brain develops over a much longer period, and that what we would generally describe as maturity is the last thing to develop. The hon. Lady may have experienced that with some of the children she used to teach. I hope that rings a bell with her.

It was also interesting that, as people got nearer to 18, their risk of reoffending actually increased, not decreased; there was something about reaching that age that created much more turbulence for the individuals. We all ought to look very carefully at how solitary confinement or segregation is imposed on people in that situation, because it is not something that immediately jumps out. In fact, there is strong evidence that involvement with the criminal justice system actually hinders the development of boys and men.

We need to do a risk assessment of people who are segregated or put into solitary confinement, and I will give a few examples of the stunning evidence as to why. Learning disability among young people in the general population is between 2% and 4%, but among those in custody it is 23% to 32%—an enormous increase. Communications impairment in young people in the country is between 5% and 7%, but for those in custody it is 60% to 90%—almost all the people there have a communication difficulty. Those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are 1.7% to 9% of the general population, going up to 12% of those in custody, while those with autistic spectrum disorder run at a maximum of 1.2% of the general population, going up to 15% of people in custody.

We are dealing with a group of people who are, by any stretch of the imagination, vulnerable and who tend to need a risk assessment in order to assess how they are doing. I know that it has already been mentioned, but the number of people in youth custody who have already been in statutory care is running at two thirds—an enormous number. Again, that suggests that we are dealing with a very vulnerable population.

To produce the report, we went to the young offenders institution at Aylesbury, where we found that segregation was used to reduce movements among young people. However, staff said that it was used when there was a risk of gang violence. Dealing with gangs in that young offenders institution was one of the biggest tasks for staff. We asked the young people there whether they would like to be in a young offenders institution or a prison—many there at the time had been in both—and they said that the change in the justice system when going from a youth institution to an adult institution was like dropping off a cliff face. It is very important to bear that in mind, because it goes back to how they are treated in relation to solitary confinement.

The Justice Committee interviewed, and I have subsequently spoken to, Lord Harris of Haringey, who produced a very good review that looked at young people detained in cells for a long period. He found there might be occasions when it was to the benefit of the individual young person to be confined to their cell. If they were being threatened, it was better to put them in their cell. However, it needs a risk assessment of their mental health and their ability to function there. Whatever the Minister says, in my experience and that of the Committee, that does not happen routinely enough, and that is a big lack in the system.

I will quote one of the witnesses we interviewed, Dr Gooch from Birmingham Law School:

“It is the decisions that are made about how you use segregation and how you use adjudications, which are the disciplinary hearings within the prison. It is the values that you instil about where the boundaries are and what is appropriate behaviour. When you talk about grip, it is not about punitiveness. It is understanding when to lock down and when to use your security measures to their full potential”.

That sort of understanding of the situation suggests there needs to be much greater flexibility in the youth justice system.

I want to pick up on one last point: the question of purposeful activity, which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle also mentioned. I have a strong view that we need to instil as much purposeful activity as possible, whether it is in the adult or the youth section of the criminal justice system. On a former Justice Committee, I went to a prison in Denmark where the prisoners, who had a wide range of ages, cooked their own food. For safety’s sake, the knives were chained to the wall. Nevertheless, the very fact that they were able to cook their own food had a big impact on their ability to be rehabilitated. It made a great impression on me and when I came back I mentioned it to the then Secretary of State, and there are prisons where that happens now in the UK. Instilling purposeful activity into young people through education and skills training or whatever is absolutely essential. We need to keep that going if we are to tackle the problem.

I know the Minister will say that this situation never happens—he is laughing at me now—but that when it does happen a risk assessment is done. All I am saying is that in the Justice Committee’s experience, that did not happen. It is not commonplace for it to happen all the time in every case. Given the history that I have given of the differences between the mental illnesses that the general population of young people have and that those in prison have, it needs to happen.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) for securing this important debate. She was absolutely right to do so, as the issue is covered much less than other wide-ranging problems in our criminal justice system. Even within the youth custodial estate as a whole, it sometimes does not get the airtime that it perhaps should. None the less, it is very important. I also congratulate her on making such powerful and substantial points. I will come on to some of the issues she raised, but she comprehensively covered a very difficult area and made particular reference to some of the international rules and laws that we are subject to and that we probably fall short of in terms of our compliance. She mentioned the Mandela rules, which I will come on to later in my speech.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) spoke eloquently and drew on his previous work in this important area. He also spoke well on some of the broader issues and challenges in our criminal justice system. He highlighted some of the disparities around mental health issues—another area that perhaps does not get so much airtime in this place, but that should be of concern not least to the Minister and the Justice team, as well as more broadly across other Departments.

Hon. Members have already mentioned the report published by the Children’s Commissioner’s late last year, which should be a final wake-up call for the Government, as its verdict was so damning. It highlighted excessive use of segregation, solitary confinement or isolation—whatever we want to call it—by institutions holding children and young people, with a rise in the number of episodes of segregation taking place at the same time as we have seen an overall fall in the number of children and young people held in custody and a rise in the length of those episodes of segregation, with many instances going on for many weeks and sometimes months. Although that should be the final wake-up call for the Government, it is far from the first alarm that has gone off, with serious concerns repeatedly raised in recent years by a range of organisations involved in inmate and child health.

The picture painted by the Children’s Commissioner and others might not be the full one; tragically, the situation could be far worse. Hampering the ability of organisations to report effectively on the issue is the lack of data being collected by the Government. The Children’s Commissioner herself stated that the lack of transparency in the recording of segregation is an issue that needs to be corrected. Her report states:

“the number and average length of periods of segregations are not published at all for YOIs...Figures for all segregations of young people should be collected centrally and included in the Youth Justice Statistics.”

On such an important issue as the wellbeing of children and young people, we need better reporting and better data from the MOJ. Frankly, I am alarmed that the data is not sufficiently recorded at present.

What the data and reports do agree on, however, is that segregation has an extremely damaging effect on the mental health of all those subjected to it, and particularly children in the crucial stages of development. The World Health Organisation has identified a range of typical mental health symptoms that are presented among those who have been segregated in custody. Medical associations here in the UK, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health corroborate those findings. That contributes to what is now an unequivocal body of evidence on the hugely damaging effect that segregation has on health and wellbeing.

Segregation poses huge risks of psychiatric and developmental harm, and various studies show that there is also an increased risk of suicide and self-harm among those in segregation. The hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is no longer in her place, asked about that, and I think there is certainly a link between suicide and segregation. Our prisons are already in a severe mental health crisis, with more than one in three offenders across the whole custody estate reporting mental health issues, and many more likely to be experiencing them. We should not be adding to those worrying figures by segregating children and young people.

We cannot look at the issue in isolation, and there are other issues within the broader custodial estate that will have an impact on it. The Children’s Commissioner noted that poor child-to-staff ratios are making it harder for children to be moved around the prison. That difficulty is compounded by the overall shortage of experienced prison officers, as those who have gained vital skills and understanding, having worked with children for years, have left the prison service, and by the specific shortage of mental health-trained officers, who were forced out by Government cuts that left staff undervalued when they were being put through increasingly difficult and trying conditions.

The shortage of mental health beds across the country following underfunding and under-resourcing is also forcing many institutions to keep children and young people in segregation for long periods while they wait for mental health beds to become available. That abhorrent practice is damning of the crisis in our NHS. A report by NHS England last year that looked at the characteristics, needs and pathways in terms of the care of young people in secure settings found that 41% of young people placed in the youth justice estate had mental health or neurodevelopmental difficulties, as the hon. Member for Henley pointed out. We must ask whether we should be sending young people with such difficult challenges to custody in the first place, and whether they would be better placed in secure medical institutions that are better equipped. It is clear to me that, with the cuts to NHS services, many mental health services are being reduced in comparison with the need for them. The justice system is being used as a dumping ground for individuals when there is no capacity elsewhere.

We cannot ignore, either, the lack of procedural safeguards that allows institutions to place young people in extended segregation. The Howard League has stated that, when it requests paperwork on isolation—even when it is the subject of a legal challenge—it faces difficulties in obtaining it. It also states that children are denied clear targets to help them move out of segregation. Particularly critical, however, are cases where institutions were unaware that external professionals such as youth offending teams and social workers should be invited to segregation reviews. Coupled with the length and nature of segregation, that all amounts to a wilful violation of the internationally recognised Mandela rules.

It must also be noted that segregation is just one aspect of the many problems with our youth custodial estate that show how unfit for purpose it is—another point highlighted by other hon. Members. One of the biggest issues is violence. The chief inspector of prisons declared in his 2017 annual report that there is not a single establishment in the youth secure estate where it is safe to hold children and young people. That was followed up by his annual report last year, in which he declared that children continue to feel unsafe in young offender institutions, and that rates of violence against both staff and young people are higher than in previous years.

The youth custodial estate also shows how great the disparity between BME and non-BME offenders has become. According to the prisons inspectorate more than half of young people in YOIs are from a black and minority ethnic backgrounds. That is a massive disparity when compared with the general population, and we should be asking deep and serious questions about why our youth justice system and custodial institutions are locking up so many young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Staff in the youth custodial estate must be able to maintain order in their institutions, but it must not be through painful restraint techniques or extreme segregation measures. That view is shared by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and the UN special rapporteur on torture, who all agree that segregation should never be used on children and young people. The Children’s Commissioner, among others, warns about segregation practices in the youth estate, and the Minister must commit today to an immediate, independent review that has the power to make recommendations not only on the use of segregation in the youth estate, but on every facet of youth custody, with a view to rebuilding the broken system that is failing to keep children safe.

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Minister, you have 42 minutes.

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As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, but I suspect I will not detain the House for 42 minutes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on securing what is—she is absolutely right—an important debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond. The issue has attracted much scrutiny in recent months, and rightly so. As the hon. Lady will be aware, I gave evidence on the subject to the Joint Committee on Human Rights last year. I will of course carefully consider the recommendations from the inquiry.

I am responsible, through my ministerial portfolio, only for under-18s institutions in the youth custodial estate, and of course Aylesbury is not in that group. However, in response to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), I want to point out that in the adult estate segregation should be used only as a last resort, when prisoners pose such a risk to themselves or others that no other suitable location is appropriate, and where all other options have been tried or are considered inappropriate. However, there is a specific approach for the under-18 estate.

I want to reassure hon. Members from the outset that children are never, and should never be, subject to solitary confinement in the UK. There is no universally agreed definition of solitary confinement, but rule 44 of the UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners—the Mandela rules that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle referred to—state that

“solitary confinement shall refer to the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”

Removal from association, or segregation, is different. I appreciate that the shadow Minister referred to it as segregation, while others refer to it as removal from association, but I think we are talking about the same thing. It is a last resort for the protection of the child or others. It should never be used as a punishment and our rules are explicitly clear on that. To reiterate, it can be used, and is used, only when a child in custody is putting themselves or others at risk, when no other form of intervention is suitable to protect both the individual or their peers, or staff. I just want to mention in that context that segregation can be removal to one’s own cell rather than to a segregation wing. I shall talk later about the statistics and the impact that that matter has on them.

As to safety, the shadow Minister referred to the 2017 report, and I am sure that he would acknowledge that the chief inspector of prisons subsequently acknowledged that there had been improvement, and that the 2017 verdict on the youth estate was not the current one. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight what was said in 2017, because it was a shocking and important report, and we rightly considered it carefully.

Under rule 49 of the Young Offender Institution Rules 2000, children may be removed from association for the maintenance of good order or discipline, or in their own interests, for up to 72 hours. The presumption is that children should be separated—placed in their room —rather than segregated to a segregation unit, wherever it is possible to do so. Children in YOIs cannot be segregated for more than 72 hours without the authority of senior managers in conjunction with the independent monitoring board and healthcare assessments. Segregation can be authorised by the young person segregation review board for up to 14 days at a time to a maximum of 21 days; a prison group director’s authority is required for anything beyond that. The prison group director must review any segregation of a young person that continues for 21 days, and for each subsequent period.

The youth custody service closely monitors the number of children removed from association under rule 49 of the Young Offender Institution rules, to ensure that all relevant management checks are in place—in a moment I will come on to points about mental health and educational assessments, which I know are of particular interest to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. Those checks include the number of instances of children being removed for more than 21 days, which require a prison group director review and approval. The PGD will review the situation again after each subsequent 21-day period.

The reasons why children may be removed from association for longer periods of time vary. As the Children’s Commissioner and my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said, some may choose to “self-isolate”, and refuse to engage with the regime or mix with other children. That can happen for a variety of reasons, some of which I may come to. Other children have been involved in multiple violent incidents, and display violent behaviour towards other children or staff. Each individual case is carefully considered and reviewed to ensure that when children are removed for long periods of time, the reasons for that are appropriate, especially if they are putting themselves, or others, at risk. I labour the point about rules because it is important to be clear that safeguards are in place, and such measures are regarded very much as a last resort, often driven by safety considerations.

As I said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights—the hon. Member for Bradford East rightly highlighted this issue—accurate data is vital for the operational running of any organisation, and to understand what is happening. I asked the chief executive of the youth custody service to look into how data can be better collected and collated in a consistent format. Such data is often reported by different institutions in different ways, which limits our ability to draw the clear conclusions that we need to make evidence-based policy.

It is not true that during removal a young person will have no meaningful human contact. The child will continue to have regular contact with staff, and individual regime and reintegration plans are agreed, with the primary aim of reintegrating children back into regular association and a normal regime as swiftly as possible. Staff are expected to focus on helping children to manage their behaviour, so that they are able to return to regular association. Such reintegration plans can include visits back to residential units for activities such as association, and they could even include sleepovers in the child’s normal room as part of that process.

A member of the healthcare team must be informed within 30 minutes of a child being removed from association in a YOI, and they must complete an initial removal health screen for the young person within two hours. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle is right to highlight mental health needs, which we seek to pick up through those screenings. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), the hon. Lady mentioned safety in custody and the risk of suicide or self-harm. She is right to suggest that in other contexts some evidence has established a link between isolation in any context and increased mental health challenges, but in England and Wales there have been no deaths among under-18s in prison custody since 2012. As she said, we must do everything possible to ensure that mental health is protected and there is no harm, but thus far we have been partly lucky, and—more importantly—thanks to the diligence of staff in our YOIs and STCs, there have been no deaths in prison custody of under-18s.

While removed, the child must be monitored at a frequency determined by an individual and tailored assessment of their needs. It is desirable to have greater interaction between staff and the child in segregation, to help that child manage their behaviour and return to regular association more swiftly. Such interaction will also alert staff to any concerns about mental health issues, and any risk of self-harm or worse. Every child who has been subject to rule 49 of the YOI rules for a continuous period of seven days must have a detailed short-term assessment of needs initiated. Children removed for a continuous period of more than 30 days must have a detailed care plan drawn up that states how their mental well-being is supported.

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I hear what the Minister is saying. Will he do me a favour and ensure that he keeps an eye on the situation he has outlined, so that it occurs in every case?

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I am always willing to do my hon. Friend a favour, and he is right to highlight that point. It is important to have processes, but we need to know that they are followed. In a number of cases, I ask for random individual updates and snapshots of information, so that I can get a feel for whether things are being done the way they should be done, and I look at those files as appropriate.

Wherever possible, children should engage with the regular regime, and other children, during their time in custody. However, there are occasions when it is necessary to remove a child from association because their behaviour is likely to be so disruptive that keeping them in an ordinary location would be unsafe, either for them or for others.

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The Minister is being kind with his time.

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There’s plenty of it.

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Perhaps that is one of the reasons why. I did not intervene earlier because I wanted to allow the Minister to progress his points, but does he draw a distinction between solitary confinement and isolation? Does he think that they are two different things? The European Prison Observatory states that those are just alternative terms, and even the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, says that although the terminology may change, those things are the same.

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As I said clearly to the JCHR, removal from association and segregation is different from solitary confinement or isolation. The Mandela rules mention having no “meaningful human contact”, but that simply is not the case when someone is segregated or removed from association. I set out previously just how much direct, meaningful human contact continues throughout that time.

When a child in a YOI is to be removed from association, they must be supported in making representations, with governors taking into account literacy levels, whether they need help from the advocacy service and what might be behind their behaviour—I have met the Howard League, and others, who make that point forcefully and reasonably. Prior to a segregation or removal from association, our experienced staff will do everything they can to de-escalate the situation in other ways. If a young person is removed from association, it is not a case of, “That solves the problem”. That is a reaction and a last-resort response based on safety considerations, and the focus throughout will be on what can be done to support that young person back into association, and address their underlying issues or concerns.

Rule 36 of the STC rules states that a young person who has been removed from association and placed in their room cannot be left unaccompanied for more than three hours in any 24-hour period. Providers keep records on staff observations, which must be undertaken at least every 15 minutes. Authorisation for keeping children “removed from association” is escalated during that three-hour cycle, with authorisation from the duty director to extend beyond one hour. All episodes are discussed at monthly performance meetings as part of the governance and oversight arrangements. In contracted-out STCs, the YCS monitor is informed within 24 hours about any removal from association. The monitor is given a summary of every occurrence of a child being placed in their room within 24 hours, and they receive detailed incident reports that articulate the circumstances that led to that removal.

As I explained to the JCHR last year, when a child is removed from association, they are given as much access as possible to the usual regime, including education and healthcare. That includes not only the provision of education packs and in-room learning but teachers attending to children in their rooms to teach them in person so that they have regular human contact. Children in YOIs are also given time in the open air, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said, and access to healthcare, physical education and legal advice, even when they are removed from association.

Individual regime plans designed around the child’s needs are agreed and reviewed frequently for each child by a multidisciplinary team. Staff in all under-18 YOIs have been given additional training on the use of segregation or removal from association, on the rules governing it and on how to ensure they comply with them. The use of segregation is heavily monitored by the youth custody service and the independent monitoring board, and indeed by me through my regular meetings with the chief executive of the service.

I am absolutely clear that the safety and wellbeing of the children and young adults in our care must be our highest priority, and I am committed to delivering wide-ranging reform to ensure that we are able to meet that priority in an increasingly challenging environment. The shadow Minister suggested that we needed a review of how youth justice, or youth custody, is conducted. I point him to the review conducted a few years ago by Charlie Taylor, which did exactly that. That review set out for us the direction of travel, which we are pursuing with the new secure schools programme, for example. I will touch on that before I conclude.

To provide some context, as hon. Members stated, there has been a sustained fall in the number of children entering the youth justice system in recent years. In the decade to 2018, juvenile cautions decreased by 91%, the number of first-time entrants into the youth justice system reduced by 86%, and, importantly in the context of this debate, the number of children in custody fell by 70%. The latest official statistics I have indicate that there were only 812 children in the youth secure estate as of January this year, a significant reduction from the almost 3,500 to 4,000 around a decade ago.

Those figures represent significant successes and are a testament both to the work and dedication of those who serve our youth justice sector in all capacities, and to the determination on both sides of the House to focus on rehabilitation and give young people the opportunity to reform and live a productive and successful life rather than being condemned at an early age to a life of going in and out of prison. However, that overall decline has resulted in a concentration in the youth secure estate of children who are convicted of the most serious offences—those who pass the bar above which custody is deemed the last resort for someone under 18 and demonstrate very complex behaviour.

The shadow Minister and others referred to the report by the Children’s Commissioner. We studied that carefully, but we challenged a number of her assertions, as I did openly at the JCHR. There are several reasons behind our challenge. The first is the change in the nature of data collection in the period that she looked at. That is not the only reason why we have seen the number of incidents we have, but we need to be careful about the data. Previously, if a young person was segregated in their own cell, it was not recorded as a segregation; a segregation was reported only if they went to a segregation unit or wing. It is important that we have clear data on any segregation or removal from association. That is one factor. It is not the only one, but it is a factor, so I just sound a slight note of caution there.

The other reason goes back to that really concentrated cohort of people convicted of the most serious offences. The average number of children held for violence against the person has increased by 11% in the last year. The proportion of children in custody for more serious offences, including violence against the person, robbery and sexual offences, has increased from 59% to 70% over the last five years. That is due to the increase in violence against the person offences, which now account for 41% of the youth custody population. The changing mix of offenders who make up that smaller overall number plays a part in both the rising levels of violence and the challenges faced by our youth custody estate.

Furthermore, as I think the shadow Minister touched on, despite the reduction in overall numbers, there has been an increase in the proportion of children from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community in custody. They currently make up around 45% of the custodial population. I am deeply concerned about the proportion of BAME children in custody, and understanding and addressing that is a key priority for me. Since my appointment, I have had the great pleasure of working with the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) on implementation of the Lammy review. We have created a dedicated youth justice disproportionality team, which is working with stakeholders and criminal justice agencies to follow the principles we set out in response to the review, either to explain clearly why this is the case or to change the way the system works to ensure that there is not unwarranted disproportionality of outcomes for BAME children.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle is absolutely right about the importance of not giving up on anyone, however challenging they are. Young people in custody are some of the most challenging people in our society, for a variety of reasons, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said. People may be challenging for mental health reasons or as a result of substance misuse. Often, people are challenging because they come from a background in which they experienced significant adverse childhood experiences or trauma, family breakup or domestic violence. There is a whole range of factors behind that. Where the severity of a crime justifies and requires a custodial sentence, our judiciary must have the power to impose one, but we should not give up on any of those young people, and we should work with them in custody to try to address the challenges and background issues they face.

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One of the other times children are at risk is when their parents are in prison. We at the Council of Europe have been very keen to ensure that there is very good treatment for that. Has the Minister come across that?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that factor. I have seen in my work on the female offender strategy the impact that a mother going to prison can have on a young person. It can put them at greater risk of offending or of becoming a victim of crime. I am not aware of the specific work by the Council of Europe, but I know that my hon. Friend is not only an extremely active and valuable participant in the Council of Europe but a strong advocate for its work, so I suspect that he will collar me outside the Chamber and raise with me the research and work it has done that I should consider carefully.

Like my hon. Friend, I believe that every child and young person in custody should have access to and be engaged in meaningful activities, including education and physical activities. The regime should be purposeful, meet the needs of the individuals, keep children occupied and active all day, and deliver the highest quality of education. That is why we have provided an additional £1.8 million of education funding for our YOIs in this financial year, and we are looking at the next iteration of the contracts for the provision of those services.

I am a particularly strong believer—even if my physique does not necessarily demonstrate it—in the benefits that sport and physical activity can bring, particularly in custody. As well as the obvious health benefits, they can provide children and young adults with a sense of achievement, discipline and purpose, and enhance their self-esteem, allowing them to take steps to transform their lives. That is why we are supporting organisations that want to work with children in the justice system and developing new partnerships between establishments, sports clubs and providers to increase access to such activities for those in custody. Members may well be aware of the twinning project that was launched last year to pair prisons with football clubs to deliver new coaching qualifications—33 premier league clubs are now signed up to that—and of the parkrun partnership, which currently operates in 11 prisons across the country, including Feltham, and is expanding.

As I said, engaging activities need to sit alongside effective behaviour management so that children can be out of their rooms and able safely to participate in the regimes and activities provided. That is why we have developed a new approach to behaviour management. Our new behaviour management framework for the youth estate, “Building Bridges”, which was published in February and began its implementation yesterday, draws on research and best practice across our establishments and those of related sectors. It introduces a range of requirements designed to create the right conditions to encourage positive behaviour and proactive, positive cultures, and sets high-level expectations for supporting positive behaviour across all sectors of the youth estate. That will sit alongside a conflict resolution strategy, applying restorative justice principles, and the custody support plan, which will provide each child with a personal officer to work with on a weekly basis in order to build trust and consistency.

I have been encouraged by the progress made by these safety initiatives so far, but there is no room at all for complacency, as both the recent report on youth custody by the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse and the latest HMIP “Children in Custody” annual report, which the shadow Minister alluded to, have made clear. There is more work to do to ensure that youth custody is a safe and effective place for children to turn their lives around.

The HMIP report highlighted the disproportionate use of restraint and segregation in youth custody for BAME children in particular, so we have identified that as a priority area, within our wider strategy, to address race disparities within the criminal justice system. The IICSA report made a number of recommendations aimed at strengthening safeguarding arrangements for children in custody. Despite its shocking findings, we are grateful to IICSA for highlighting those issues. I have written to the inquiry’s chair, Professor Jay, to confirm that we will respond as soon as we are in a position to do so.

More broadly—I come to my penultimate point—we are underpinning all of these reforms with investment in our workforce. The shadow Minister has raised that issue not just in relation to our youth estate but more broadly; I know that he takes a close interest in it. Since October 2016, we have increased the size of our frontline workforce across the prison service by more than 4,700 officers to relieve day-to-day pressures and enable the delivery of more proactive, positive initiatives such as those I have mentioned and the key worker scheme in the adult estate. But we do not only need more staff; we must invest in their training and development to provide them with the knowledge and skills needed to meet the complex needs of those in custody. That is why I was pleased to see that the Prison Officers Association endorsed our reform proposals for the youth custody workforce last week.

We are introducing a new youth justice specialist role and funding all of our youth custody prison officers to undertake a foundation degree in youth justice and transition to that new role on promotion and at a higher pay grade. The training and duties of the role will allow staff to engage with the root causes of children’s offending and more effectively build positive and proactive relationships. More than 300 frontline staff have already voluntarily entered into the qualification, and I look forward to welcoming the first specialists on to the wings in the coming months.

It is crucial that the workforce in the custodial estate are as representative as possible of the group of children they serve. Following the Lammy review, HMPPS made a commitment that at least 14% of new recruits would come from BAME backgrounds by December 2020. I am pleased with the progress we are making in this area; between January 2017 and December 2018 18.5% of the formal offers that were accepted for recruitment to the YCS were from BAME candidates.

Finally, as I said, we continue to work on our proposal to develop secure schools, which we believe are the transformational step in a new approach to youth custody. At present we have prisons with an educational element. What we seek with the reform, and the first secure school planned for Medway, is to reverse that presumption and create instead a school with security, with the education and progress of the young person at the heart of the vision.

I am under no illusions about the challenge we face. We are talking about children who display the most challenging needs and behaviours, and considerable vulnerabilities. Our reforms will support establishments to provide better levels of care, help meet young people’s needs and reduce the likelihood of the need to use separation. If it would be helpful, I am happy to meet the hon. Lady separately outside the Chamber to discuss the education screening, education work and mental health issues raised.

Ultimately, like all of us here, the Government wish to see a change in our system, with fewer young people entering it in the first place and, for those who do, a clear focus on rehabilitation and reducing the risk of reoffending, giving those young people a better chance at life. We want to see more children safer and happier, spending more time engaging in purposeful and constructive activities with a greater hope of a meaningful and crime-free future. I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to the debate.

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I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), and the Minister for their contributions. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Henley about the need to look at the risk assessments for isolation, ensure that they are routine and enforced, and to keep monitoring that closely.

I welcome many of the points that the Minister made, including his reluctance about the idea of having children in prison. He said it was a sign that society had failed. I totally accept his point about the concentrated cohort with extremely complex needs. I welcome his offer to talk to me on the education side and to look again at investing money further upstream, because the figures that the hon. Member for Henley highlighted relating to children with communication difficulties, children with ADHD and children who are autistic ending up in our prison service are shocking.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, we need to look at staff experience and staff ratios to see why so many more children are being isolated, because only so much can be explained by their having special needs and disabilities, or undiagnosed needs. Perhaps we need to look at having more staff trained in mental health in our youth service, or specialists who know how to address and work with these young people. We also need a more joined-up approach with education and social services to prevent children ending up in prison.

I thank the hon. Member for Henley for contributing, as well as the shadow Minister and the Minister. I hope that we will continue to have this conversation as we do not give up on any child. I hope that they can eventually become productive members of society again.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered youth inmates in solitary confinement.

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Order. The sitting will be suspended until 4 o’clock. If a Division is called during that time, we will meet back here as soon after the vote as the mover of the motion and the Minister can make it.

Sitting suspended.

Pancreatic Cancer

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered treatment for pancreatic cancer.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who was an outstanding Health Minister and who I am sure will continue to make significant contributions to the fight against cancer. I thank members of the all-party parliamentary group on pancreatic cancer and associated charities for their work, and people watching on the Parliament channel for their interest and support.

It is time to up our game on the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer. Full marks to campaigners such as Ali Stunt of Pancreatic Cancer Action, who was inspired after surviving the cancer herself to set up a charity that focuses on improving early diagnosis in particular. We need even more people like Ali, with her determination and passion, to ensure we can make a difference. Once diagnosed, there is an urgent need for access to faster treatment for people who have pancreatic cancer.

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I thank my hon. Friend for ensuring that this issue is brought to the attention of the House. Does he agree that, while there is a great emphasis on early identification of pancreatic cancer and we all share the concern that identification should come as early as possible, the speed of treatment is every bit as important? Does he agree that we have some way to go before we can be satisfied with that speed of treatment for most patients with pancreatic cancer in this country?

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My hon. Friend is right: speed of treatment after diagnosis is an issue, and I will emphasise that in my speech.

Pancreatic cancer is the quickest-killing cancer: only one in four people survive a year and fewer than 7% of those affected in England will survive for five years or more. Those are appalling statistics, and they have not improved in this country in decades.

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I commend the hon. Gentleman, who has been a spokesman for pancreatic cancer treatment and many other things in this House. I always look to him personally for his lead in these things. In the background reading I did before the debate, I saw that the latest findings showed that overweight 50-year-olds have a 25% higher chance of having pancreatic cancer. I never knew that before. That not only shows the need for people to be aware of how their weight affects their long-term health, but is a red flag that the number of pancreatic cancer patients could rise. If being overweight can lead to pancreatic cancer, we must ensure that appropriate treatment is available for that rising number,.

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The hon. Gentleman is exactly right; the more we learn about this disease, the more we can try to do things to prevent it and to support people so that they can get early diagnosis and treatment. The chances of survival for Kevin, the husband of my constituent Maggie Watts, were no better than those of his mother, who died of the same disease 40 years earlier. Yet other countries are doing much better; Belgium and the USA have double the survival rates of the UK. We need the Government to work with the fantastic pancreatic cancer charities—Pancreatic Cancer UK, Pancreatic Cancer Action, Pancreatic Cancer Scotland and the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund—as well as other stakeholders to deliver a step change in outcomes for pancreatic cancer.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Sadly, in January my former caseworker died of pancreatic cancer, so I saw the sudden impact of the condition and how quickly it can affect people, as the hon. Gentleman has eloquently set out, as well as the poor survival rates. What particular lessons does he think this country can learn from Belgium, the United States and other countries where outcomes and survival rates are better?

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I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on blood cancers in particular, and other cancer awareness issues such as this. He is right that we must learn the lessons from elsewhere, and hopefully I can demonstrate that there are things we can do to help us to catch up, once the diagnosis is in place, and get faster treatment.

One of the things that frustrates campaigners such as Maggie is the danger of accepting that little can be done after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. There is a sense of nihilism about this disease. Maggie’s optimistic initiative in response to her situation is called “Hope is Contagious”, and it should energise us all to redouble our efforts. No one should be written off.

Paul Kenny is a pancreatic cancer sufferer who has contacted me on Twitter, saying he has a “slim chance” of seeing his next birthday, but adding:

“Hopefully future generations of sufferers will be prevented or given better prognoses.”

Paul is right—we can do so much better, and we must.

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My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech that will resonate with many people, including my own family. My lovely mother-in-law, Jean Buck, had stomach pains and was misdiagnosed with pancreatitis. She was sent home from hospital on a diet of bread and water. When back in hospital, she suffered a heart attack and slipped into a coma. Only then did the hospital suspect pancreatic cancer, but it was too late to operate, because she needed to breathe unaided and sadly she could not. That left my father-in-law, Maurice, my husband and his brother and sister with the heartbreaking decision of whether to end her life support—a decision that will haunt their grief forever. Does my hon. Friend agree that earlier diagnosis is key not only for those who are suffering, but for those left behind?

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I thank my hon. Friend: in sharing that personal story, she makes a powerful argument about the need for better early diagnosis. Sadly, the story that she tells is the familiar one of undiagnosed general symptoms eventually, in an emergency, being diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. Very often, it is then too late to take action to address the illness. However, I want to focus on the fact that when we do diagnose early, we need to act early to cure people, because that is an area where we can certainly up our game.

At the moment, only one in 10 pancreatic cancer patients receives potentially curative surgery and only two in 10 receive chemotherapy, meaning that a massive seven in 10 people receive no treatment at all. That has to change. Last month, I delivered to the House a petition signed by an incredible 100,600 people supporting Pancreatic Cancer UK’s campaign to “Demand Faster Treatment”. They are asking for pancreatic cancer to be recognised as a cancer emergency and for people to be able to access treatment within 20 days of diagnosis in order to have the best chance of survival.

That ask is based on the latest evidence and best practice from existing fast-track models for operable and inoperable patients. Those models show that treating people with pancreatic cancer within 20 days increases the number accessing surgery by 20% and the number accessing chemotherapy by 25%. Those are significant improvements. Fast-track surgery will allow more people to access life-saving treatment, and we know that the survival rate is 10 times higher for those receiving surgery. The 100,600 people who signed the petition believe that those models should be the basis of a national optimal pathway for the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer to ensure that people with the disease can be treated within 20 days.

I want to be clear that I am not talking here about early diagnosis, important though that is—hon. Members’ interventions have underlined that—and I welcome the focus of the Government and NHS England on early diagnosis of all cancers. That can only be a good thing and it will help. However, there are currently many people with pancreatic cancer who have been diagnosed early enough to receive treatment but, unacceptably, do not receive it. That is the issue that I am focusing on today.

For example, more than half of people with stage 1 and stage 2 pancreatic cancer die within a year, and almost half of them, 42%, do not receive any active treatment at all—neither surgery nor chemotherapy. The data suggests that those patients are not prioritised and have not been treated as an emergency. Unfortunately, all the evidence shows that the Government’s current and proposed waiting times are not fast enough for people with pancreatic cancer. A one-size-fits-all approach is not improving, and will not improve, survival rates for pancreatic cancer.

It was disappointing that the recently published interim report of the clinically-led review of NHS access standards did not take the opportunity to propose a differentiated target for pancreatic cancer. If we really want to transform outcomes, it is high time that we had differentiated targets, including a 20-day treatment target for pancreatic cancer.

Behind the statistics are real people. We have heard about some of them today, and their stories help us truly understand the missed opportunities and devastating consequences of the current system. No one did more to mobilise people to sign the petition and help make the case for faster treatment than Erika Vincent. In February 2018, Erika was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, yet despite its advanced nature, she was made to wait two months for treatment—something that she described as psychological torture for her and her family. While she waited, her cancer spread, bringing her more pain and complicating the care that she would eventually receive. Erika believed that the delays to her treatment reduced the time she had left with her family. She chose to spend much of that time championing the need to treat pancreatic cancer as an emergency, believing, as I do, that pancreatic cancer patients cannot afford to wait. Sadly, Erika passed away just weeks before the petition calling for faster treatment—a petition that she had done so much to assemble and put together as part of a campaign—was presented to the House.

Erika’s story stands in stark contrast to that of Liz Oakley. When Liz was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January last year, it took just 12 days for her to be scheduled for surgery—the only cure for pancreatic cancer. Liz had already survived breast cancer twice. She is both a testimony to the remarkable progress that has been made in the treatment of other cancers and living proof of what is possible for patients with pancreatic cancer.

There is a compelling case for treating pancreatic cancer as a cancer emergency and for creating optimal fast-track pathways. Far too many people have been lost to this disease too early. For far too long, pancreatic cancer has been forgotten, neglected, written off. The Government can commit today to changing that. Will the Government look at developing optimal pancreatic cancer pathways? Will they evaluate rolling out fast-track surgery models across England? Will they commit to the ambition of allowing people with pancreatic cancer to access treatment within 20 days of diagnosis by 2024?

Thankfully, we have seen huge changes for other cancers. Lung cancer is a good example. Back in 2005, the national lung cancer audit showed that patients with operable lung cancer were not referred for surgery, and it was shown that the surgery rate could be tripled in a cancer network within one year. Between 1985 and 2005, there were just 3,000 operations a year; that increased to 7,250 in 2016. That is inspirational. It shows what we can do. It shows what we can achieve when a cancer is treated as a cancer emergency, as pancreatic cancer must be now. Hope is contagious. Let us make it happen.

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The debate can last until 4.34 pm.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) for the articulate and passionate way in which he made his case. He has a long history of campaigning on this issue, and long may he continue. We know that we need a conscience when it comes to driving improvements throughout the health system, and it is always instructive to hear people’s experiences. I thank the hon. Gentleman for all the work that he does in chairing the all-party parliamentary groups on cancer and on pancreatic cancer.

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sharing the stories of Ali Stunt, Maggie Watts and Erika Vincent, because we need to remember that we are not talking about some vague disease that happens to other people; it happens to real human beings and their lives are incredibly affected by our failure, or otherwise, to take action in these spheres. They also inspire us. The fact that Erika Vincent dedicated so much of her final days to raising awareness is inspirational, and we would be very poor if we did not take action following that.

I also thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) for sharing her family story. Again, she illustrated that this can happen to any one of us. When we are in a position to do something about it, we must act.

No one will be surprised that tackling cancer is a major priority for the Government. We have presided over year-on-year increases in survival rates, so that today they are at the highest levels recorded. However, we should not rest on our laurels and be complacent. That is good progress, but we must do better—our ambition is to do better.

Last October, the Prime Minister announced a package of measures with the aim of detecting three quarters of all cancers at stages 1 or 2 by 2028. These measures will see improvements to our screening programmes and new investment in state of the art technology, to further improve diagnosis and boost long-term research and innovation.

That represents the cancer element of the NHS long-term plan, published in January, which sets out how we will achieve our ambition of 55,000 more people surviving cancer for five years in each year from 2028. Colleagues will be aware that the Secretary of State is placing considerable emphasis on prevention, so we need to look at what else we are doing, in terms of screening and research, to tackle these issues. All of that is to be commended, but we must not be complacent. We can learn from the examples of Belgium and the USA, where much greater advances have been made.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe reminds us all that survival rates for certain cancers remain stubbornly low, including for pancreatic cancer, which is the least survivable of all cancers and so merits special attention. As he alluded to, late diagnosis is a key reason for that. We know that less than a quarter of people have their cancer diagnosed at stage 1 or 2, compared to half of people for all other cancers.

The new early diagnosis ambition represents a huge opportunity to change that for three reasons. First, the ambition must apply to all stageable cancers, including pancreatic cancer. NHS England is working with Pancreatic Cancer UK and others on how we can adjust the current national measure of early diagnosis to include pancreatic cancer for the first time.

Secondly, within that headline measure, the Government are committed to publishing regular data on individual cancers. We need to be transparent about how we are performing in this area, so that we can identify which cancers we are tackling in terms of early diagnosis, and which need more attention. That will provide a powerful catalyst for all the charities to come together and work with NHS England to deliver that change.

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I thank the Minister for the serious and thoughtful way in which she is responding to the debate. Does she think that there is an opportunity to look at a 20-day target for moving from diagnosis to treatment, which would make a real difference to this cancer?

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Indeed. I will come to that point, if the hon. Gentleman bears with me.

I would like to highlight the other unsurvivable cancers that suffer from late diagnosis, which, as well as pancreatic cancer, include cancer of the stomach and oesophagus. We must ensure that we also focus on those cancers.

The focus of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was that pancreatic cancer should be treated as a cancer emergency. Pancreatic Cancer UK’s recent demand for faster treatment set the ambition to treat pancreatic cancer within 20 days from diagnosis by 2024. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Liz Oakley. The fact that she had treatment within 12 days shows that it can be done. We should embrace that level of ambition. While we recognise that great achievement and advance, we should ensure that that is the experience across our national health service.

What I will say does not quite meet the hon. Gentleman’s request, but I think he will welcome the direction of travel. NHS England will shortly be introducing a faster diagnostic standard of 28 days for all cancer patients, including those with pancreatic cancer. That will mean that every patient can expect a definitive diagnosis—yes or no—within 28 days. Taken together with the 62-day referral to treatment standard, all patients should expect to start their treatment within 34 days of diagnosis.

I know that is not quite the target that the hon. Gentleman set me, but if we can ensure the whole system works to that efficiency, we will make great strides in tackling this. I cannot emphasise enough that we should never lack ambition in how far we are prepared to drive improvements. That standard of treatment within 34 days is the maximum, but I expect trusts always to treat patients according to clinical need and to prioritise those needing urgent treatment, such as Liz Oakley, who received treatment within 12 days.

We welcome Pancreatic Cancer UK and all other stakeholders working with the pancreatic cancer clinical community to develop practices to shorten the time before treatment even further. It is important that we continue that dialogue, not just to be reactive, but to build confidence, because poor survival rates are well understood. We do not want people to be diagnosed and automatically think that there is no hope. There is always hope, and our NHS services must ensure that people understand that.

NHS services for pancreatic cancer have improved significantly in recent years. I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman accepted that. In the spirit of demanding more, it is always good to look at how far we have come. I thank him for that. There are now clearer diagnostic pathways. Decision making is done by specialist multi-disciplinary teams.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

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I will try to remember where I left off.

Obviously, cancer treatment plays a big part in our long-term plan for the next 10 years, which sets out positive developments at every stage of the pancreatic cancer pathway. Clearly, we need to look at issues such as prevention, as we have mentioned, but the plan also signals a shift towards more risk-based approaches to screening. We will begin to test family members of cancer patients where they are at increased risk. Data suggests that 10% of pancreatic cancer cases are inherited, so screening can be a big tool with which to combat the disease.

Primary care networks will play an important new role in supporting GPs to build on the doubling in referral volumes that we have seen since 2010. Rapid diagnostic centres will provide a new referral route for patients, particularly those who go to their GP with vague symptoms, and will ensure that they get checked out quickly and accurately. From next year, many more newly diagnosed cancer patients will be offered genomic testing to help to inform their treatment planning. We will continue to invest in safer and more precise treatments, including immunotherapies, to improve survival rates. We are completing a massive upgrade of radiotherapy services across England, which will increase the support that patients can access. Finally, the plan reaffirms our commitment that every person diagnosed with cancer will have access to personalised care, including a needs assessment, a care plan and health and wellbeing support.

I will quickly say something about research. In 2017, Pancreatic Cancer UK and four other charities launched the less survivable cancers taskforce, which represents all cancers with stubbornly poor survival rates and calls for improvements in research. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) spoke at the taskforce’s launch and put the Government’s full support behind it. Research into innovative medicines and treatments is extremely important. We accept that there is an unacceptable research funding gap, with less survivable cancers receiving five times less research funding than more survivable cancers, which we need to address. Cancer Research UK has prioritised increasing research into hard-to-treat cancers, including pancreatic cancer, but more needs to be done.

In closing, I reiterate that, as a Government, we have made considerable progress, but there is much more to be done. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe and all hon. Members who have taken an interest in the debate. I know that they will hold the Government’s feet to the fire to ensure that we carry on making real improvements in treating and supporting people with pancreatic cancer.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered treatment for pancreatic cancer.

Puppy Smuggling

[Relevant document: Third Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of Session 2016-17, Animal welfare in England: domestic pets, HC 117, and the Government response, HC 1003.]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce the debate. I extend my thanks to the many organisations and bodies that have been campaigning on the issue for a long time, not least the Dogs Trust. It has one of the country’s largest rehoming centres in my constituency and it is a pleasure to work with it.

This is the second time that I have introduced a debate on the topic, and I am pleased to be joined again by hon. Members from across the House. That is hardly surprising, given that there are 9 million dogs in the UK—probably more; we do not know exactly—and many more dog lovers. I also have here a book that contains the pledges of 137 Members of Parliament who are committed to stopping puppy smuggling. I hope that that conveys to the Minister how deeply concerned we are about puppy smuggling. I am not the only person in the House who has concerns about the issue being raised by a significant number of our constituents.

In the previous debate on the topic, I told the Chamber that puppy smuggling was a multimillion-pound underground—

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On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. There is no Minister present. Is that in order?

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Thank you for pointing that out. It is not in order for the Minister not to be present. In the circumstances, we will suspend the sitting until he arrives and allow Mr Huddleston to start his speech again then.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming

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The sitting is resumed and I invite Mr Huddleston to restart his speech.

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Once again, I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate today. I also extend my thanks to the many organisations and bodies that have campaigned on this issue for many years, in particular the Dogs Trust, which has one of the country’s largest rehoming centres in my constituency. It is a pleasure to work with it.

This is the second time that I have secured a debate on this topic, and I am pleased to be joined again by so many colleagues of different parties from across the House. That is not surprising, as there are 9 million dogs in the UK and many more dog lovers.

I also have with me today a book containing the pledges of more than 137 MPs, and I think more MPs will be signing today, showing that they are committed to stopping puppy smuggling. I hope that that conveys to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), just how deeply concerned we are about puppy smuggling, and I know that I am not the only Member of Parliament who will say that this issue is also of great concern to my constituents.

In the previous debate that I secured on this subject, I told the House how puppy smuggling was a multi-million pound industry—an illegal trade. Hundreds of puppies are intercepted at our ports and borders each and every year. I will come on to some of the issues surrounding security at our borders a little later, but it is likely that thousands more puppies slip through the net and remain unidentified.

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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and also for securing this really important debate. He talked about measures being put in place at the borders. However, does he agree that it is not only important for us to put measures in place in the UK but that we need international co-operation as well, to stamp out this horrendous practice?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will come to some of the recommendations later on. Although much of the focus of my recommendations will be on what the UK Government can do, we also need to lobby internationally to ensure that there is fair treatment and awareness across countries.

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On that specific point, there is a particular issue with the Irish border; it is estimated that about 30,000 puppies cross it every year. So, although we can secure the borders of the United Kingdom, we also need to co-operate with other countries, including the Republic of Ireland, to see what can be done to ensure that the likes of that land border, which is very difficult to put checks along, can still have checks in operation, and it is also particularly important to have checks at ports in the Republic of Ireland as well.

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The hon. Lady is making another very important point. Of course, there are particular sensitivities around the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that we are all aware of. Her point is very important, and it deserves very careful consideration, so I thank her again for raising it.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that unscrupulous dealers are now taking advantage of the pet travel scheme and that that scheme needs to end after Brexit?

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I thank my hon. Friend for making that point; indeed, I am just about to come on to it. I think we are suffering from the unintended consequences of some changes in schemes and programmes.

Of course, puppy smuggling at heart is an industry perpetrated by people who are motivated purely by money. They can make up to an incredible £35,000 per week by illegally transporting puppies through our borders, to be sold to unsuspecting dog lovers in the UK. The root cause of puppy smuggling seems, indeed, to be the ease with which gangs can abuse the pet travel scheme that operates across Europe, which is otherwise known as PETS.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he rightly identifies the large sums of money that can be made either by individuals or by organised crime gangs. These criminals appear to make a very fine cost-benefit calculation, which reinforces the need, expressed by a number of animal charities, to increase the penalties for maltreating animals. There should also be confiscation of vehicles, so that this business is no longer a paying business.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. Indeed, many and various recommendations have come out of this debate, and of course disincentivising this really despicable trade in every way we can is very important. Penalties, fixed fines and indeed criminal sanctions are, of course, the things that we all need to consider.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Is it not also the case that as well as increasing penalties, which I strongly agree with, it is important that those penalties are available against a wide range of offences? There has been some argument that the specified offences in the current draft of the Act are not wide enough to cover all the offences that will be committed in the process of smuggling puppies.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point; I am sure that the Minister is listening to it and to other points, and will respond to them. As I have said, there are many things we need to focus on. Of course, changes in the law are being considered. For example, the animal cruelty sentences will not just be specifically for puppy smuggling; they will cover a wider range of offences, and we need to make sure that the range is as broad as possible.

I had said that there were some unintended consequences to PETS. In an effort to harmonise travel between European countries, PETS was relaxed in 2012. Among the changes were the removal of the requirement for a puppy to have had a rabies blood test and a lowering of the minimum age for travel from 10 months to just 15 weeks. Since the relaxation of the PETS rules, there has been a considerable rise in the number of puppies entering the UK. In 2011, just 85,000 puppies legally entered Great Britain, but by 2017 that figure had more than trebled.

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I congratulate the hon. Member on securing his second debate on this vital issue. My constituency is home to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, which is incredibly concerned about this particular issue. Does he agree that, rather than a reduction in the market, there needs to be a wholesale ban on the smuggling of all puppies?

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I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention; indeed, I also pay tribute to the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, for what it has done. And she makes a very valid point. All of these options need to be carefully considered.

Hundreds of puppies are intercepted at our ports each year, and although we cannot accurately assess the scale of the puppy smuggling trade—it is, after all, illegal and therefore difficult to assess fully—it is likely that the true number of puppies being smuggled into the UK reaches into the thousands and not just the hundreds.

The most recent report into puppy smuggling by the Dogs Trust has also uncovered an alarming new trend of puppies from non- EU countries, such as Serbia, being taken to EU member states, given fraudulent EU pet passports and then smuggled to the UK from there.

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I recently spoke to a constituent who had driven 200 miles to pick up a French bulldog puppy. It was meant to be the perfect family pet, but after its first check it emerged that it had both heart and kidney problems, as a result of bad breeding practices at what turned out to be a puppy-farming operation. I wholeheartedly support the hon. Gentleman’s call for better regulation of puppies entering the UK.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point and I will be coming on to that issue in a moment.

Through good will and because they want to enjoy and care for an animal, families are sometimes led into doing something that is not appropriate for the animal. The animals’ circumstances can be horrible and they are not always in a great condition, which is extremely alarming.

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I am grateful to my hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I know that he is desperately trying not to mention the “B word” in this debate; I think we can all appreciate that. However, does he agree that one of the advantages of leaving the European Union will be that it will offer an opportunity to introduce far-reaching animal welfare regulations that go beyond the existing framework, including the reintroduction of tests for rabies?

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I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; indeed, one of the recommendations that I will come to in a moment is to introduce a test for rabies. We cannot do so at the moment, because we are in the EU, but that is an opportunity that we could take once we have left the EU. I also thank her for raising the “B word”.

Puppies should be at least seven months old before travelling to an EU member state from a third country, but the Dogs Trust found that in Serbia puppies as young as 10 weeks were given fake documentation, so that they could gain entry to the UK.

It is worth reflecting on the truly awful conditions that some of these poor animals have to endure. To evade detection, puppies are sometimes squashed into the hollow of backseats or covered in blankets and bundled under a front seat. They are often sedated to prevent them from making any noise or moving around. The Dogs Trust has told me that it has intercepted at the border puppies that have been given such heavy doses of sedative that it has taken them several days to come to. Travelling to the UK by car from countries such as Lithuania, Latvia and Serbia can take up to 30 hours, during which time puppies are given no toilet breaks, no time to exercise and very little, if any, food and water.

One case that exemplifies just how awful the trade is, is that of Lola, a French bulldog who was transported hundreds of miles from Lithuania, with temperatures in the van she was smuggled in reaching more than 40° C. She was heavily pregnant and it is illegal for a travelling pet to be pregnant. Shortly after being taken in by the Dogs Trust, she gave birth to four puppies, but it was such a difficult birth and she had been through such a traumatic experience that two of them were stillborn.

Lola has since had a number of health issues, ranging from infections to respiratory diseases, with some requiring surgery, but the Dogs Trust has managed to arrange treatment and she has been successfully rehomed. However, had Lola not been detected at the border, she and her puppies would have been advertised online and sold to an unsuspecting family who had no knowledge of the state of their health. Imagine someone bringing a new puppy home to their family, to very excited children, only to discover that it was unwell, possibly diseased and requiring treatment that could cost thousands of pounds.

The trauma of the journeys these puppies are forced to endure often leads them to develop behavioural issues and some, unfortunately, do not recover from their health issues and end up being put down. After rescuing 39 puppies from one commercial dealer, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that six needed to be put down immediately and two thirds had congenital defects. The RSPCA has also cited an investigation that found that about 20% of puppies bought on the internet died within six months.

What can be done to put an end to this trade? There have been many suggestions and, as has been mentioned, some of the changes can be made once we have left the EU. I wish to acknowledge and show my appreciation for the fact that the Government take animal safety and welfare seriously—for example, all the work that they have done on the banning of ivory sales and third-party sales of puppies. But they could, and should, go further. For instance, I urge them to bring before Parliament as soon as possible the already promised increase to five years of the maximum sentence for animal cruelty. That would apply to puppy smuggling.

I also ask the Government to consider introducing on-the-spot fines for those caught illegally importing dogs, and I encourage them to improve the presence of border officials at our ports, to carry out more visual checks at all hours of the day, every day of the week. The current disparity in the border presence between office hours and weekend and evening slots can all too easily be exploited by smugglers.

Post-Brexit, the Government could reintroduce a requirement for dogs to have a rabies blood test and set a restriction on how soon after the test they could travel. That could increase the age at which dogs could legally enter the country to six months, say. The benefits of that in tackling puppy smuggling are twofold: it is much easier for officials to assess accurately the age of puppies once they have reached six months, and the incentive to smuggle puppies in the first place would be reduced because they are less desirable to the public once they are that bit older.

I know that the Minister is familiar with the issues we have raised; he and I have had many conversations in the past. Colleagues wish to bring up many other points, so I will finish my speech. I know that the Minister will listen carefully, and I look forward to his response.

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The debate can last until 5.40 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench spokespeople no later than 5.17 pm, and the guideline limits are five minutes for the SNP, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister, and then Nigel Huddleston will have a few minutes to sum up the debate. Until 5.17 pm, it is Back-Bench time, and nine Members are seeking to contribute. I want everyone to be able to do so, so I am afraid there will have to be a time limit of two and a half minutes to ensure that everyone can get in.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on calling this very important debate. I will not go through the detail he laid before us.

It is clear that puppy smuggling is a problem that has grown significantly in the past few years. Let us be clear that the pet travel scheme—PETS—has been a great boon to many pet owners, enabling them to take their much-loved pets around the continent without the need for quarantine. I think there is broad consensus that the 2012 relaxation and harmonisation of the rules governing the scheme made it even easier to take pets across borders. However, in a country such as the UK, where for many years demand for puppies has outstripped supply, that was always going to increase the risk of smuggling activity on the part of unscrupulous dealers ready to make cheap money out of a grossly unethical and cruel trade.

Illegal puppy smuggling involves poor breeding practices and sometimes appalling conditions, with many of the puppies suffering disease. The hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire laid out the detail on that very well. Many puppies are not properly vaccinated and false certification of the animals as they are sold on to unsuspecting individuals here in the UK is a key part of the illegal trade.

If we are serious about animal welfare and committed to preventing the suffering of such animals, immediate action is needed to improve enforcement of the pet travel scheme. It is clear that we need tougher penalties for those caught illegally importing dogs. We have waited a long time for the Bill that would allow for five-year sentences for animal cruelty offences and my key question to the Minister is: when will we see that Bill? If the Government do not publish it and have its First Reading, they should let a Member do it via a private Member’s Bill. We can do it quickly—in a day—if we have the will. The focus on enforcement must also be shifted away from the ferry companies and Eurotunnel to Government agencies, with visual checks of dogs entering the country.

I will leave it at that. I do not have much time and others want to speak. I want to hear the Minister’s view, particularly on those animal cruelty sentencing powers.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

I care a great deal about this issue, as do many of my constituents. I am a dog lover, and the proud owner of two rescue dogs, Phoebe and Herbie, who give me such joy. I want to speak about this matter and, like the many constituents who have written to me, to call for more action.

Our exit from the EU affords us an opportunity to improve on what is already a good regime. I am delighted that my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), has secured this debate and laid out in his comments all the actions that need to be taken. I do not, therefore, need to add much more, but will just touch on some brief points.

Three areas need to be looked at: our efforts at the border; our internal regulations; and the international engagement we pursue. As hon. Members have mentioned, central and eastern European countries—Hungary, Poland and Romania in particular—most often provide the supply of puppies, which feeds a growing demand for fashionable dogs. Given the rise in the demand for fighting dogs too, other nations are becoming involved, including the USA; it is worth noting that some 13 American bulldogs have been intercepted at the border in the past year. However, the issue is predominantly a European one, and the EU pet travel scheme is routinely abused, allowing puppies to cross our borders to feed the growing demand. Forged documents, corrupt vets and an absence of border checks in the Schengen area all contribute to that environment.

Although we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe or this problem behind, so we have to keep working with the states that are most heavily involved. Lithuania, for example, has introduced legislation that means that pet passports can be issued only by a vet from the state veterinary service. Figures from the Animal and Plant Health Agency show a huge reduction in the number of illegally landed dogs, from 106 in 2016 to just three in 2018. However, more countries need to act. Many countries are involved, and we need to co-operate with them all.

Many of the steps that have been outlined are not new, but they would bring the regulations back up to a more robust level and deter criminals from smuggling puppies into the UK. I pay tribute to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Dogs Trust. I was delighted to go with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire to Downing Street to present the petition, and I thank everyone for their efforts in clamping down on the trade.

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I am delighted to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing it.

We know that puppy smuggling is increasing, but the scale of the problem is, by its nature, difficult to assess. Puppy smuggling now represents the third most frequent organised criminal activity to emerge from the RSPCA’s intelligence gathering, with only animal fighting and illegal hunting more frequent. The challenge is that the deterrents against that type of criminal behaviour are simply not robust enough: the fortunes that can be made far outweigh the punishments meted out, and that has to change. The real way to stop this barbaric trade is to enhance public awareness of the issue by highlighting the consequences of this vile illegal trade for dogs and for families.

The Dogs Trust and others have warned that damaging changes to the pet travel scheme in 2012 have resulted in an influx of puppies being illegally imported from central and eastern Europe into the UK for sale, with corrupt breeders abusing the system. Such mistakes must not be compounded inadvertently, but must be comprehensively addressed. An important aspect of tackling that abuse is cross-border co-operation with our European neighbours, and I hope—to mention the “B” word—that any form of Brexit, should it happen, does not prevent such co-operation between the UK and Europe. The European Parliament called last year for new resolutions to end the illegal trafficking of pets, and is working towards them. Whether we are in or out of Europe, we in the United Kingdom need to be part of those efforts.

I urge the Minister to work with our European partners to ensure that the microchipping of pets across the member states of the EU is more harmonised, as that would enable a more compatible database. We know that criminal gangs have taken advantage of the lack of harmonisation of ID, registration and database requirements to circumvent the pet travel scheme and use it as cover for the mass illegal smuggling of puppies. Harmonisation would strike a significant blow to the heart of this barbaric, illegal trade. We are nations of animal lovers, and we cannot delay any longer.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on introducing this debate, but we have discussed this issue so many times and now we need action. I rather agree with the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), in that I look to my hon. Friend the Minister to do something about this issue.

I have had two rescued pugs—a difficult breed. At the moment, we have a French bulldog; my daughter has it at the weekends, and my wife and I have it during the week, so we have the best of both worlds. Of course, puppies are very cute, but looking after them is a huge responsibility.

As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire, an unintended consequence of the pet travel scheme and the relaxation of EU legislation has been an increase of smuggled puppies into the UK. It appears that those smugglers have easily been able to falsify pet passports and vaccine documentation, because enforcement at the borders is simply not good enough. It would be wonderful if my hon. Friend the Minister could explain how he and the Department intend to deal with the issues we face at those borders.

In 2012, when the rules were relaxed, the number of dogs entering the UK under PETS increased by 61%, and the age at which they could be imported was reduced from about 10 months to just 15 weeks. That has made it easier for smugglers to flout the rules and bring in unvaccinated puppies who are too young to travel.

As we have already heard, we are a nation of animal lovers; let us prove it. Through a simple Bill, we could change the way in which puppies are treated, and dealing with the wicked online behaviour of these crooks and criminals is key to that. We need to hear a strong message from the Minister.

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Westminster Hall would not be complete without Jim Shannon.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on having set the scene, and thank him for giving us a chance to speak on this issue. With a wife who is as dedicated to her volunteer work at Assisi as I am to this House, it is little wonder that I stand to speak today. I am also an animal lover, and a dog lover in particular, so I wanted to weigh in during this important debate. I thank the charities that work in this area, such as the RSCPA, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Dogs Trust and Assisi, as well as the World Dog Alliance, which campaigns against dog meat as food; I look to the Minister to give a quick update about where we are on that issue, if he can. That charity has been very involved in educating people to be aware of exactly where their puppy has come from.

My parliamentary assistant recently bought a dog, and I will tell Members what she did, because it is what we should all be doing. She asked to see the mother and the father of the dog; she checked with a registered vet as to how many litters the mother had; she went to the home of the owners for a second visit to see mums and babies; and she asked for the papers of the parents. She was as thorough in doing that as she is in her work with me. She also told me that before I spoke in the last debate on puppy smuggling, she would never have done that. That is what we should all be doing, and that was a plus for her.

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This will probably be the fastest speech that you have heard, Mr Hollobone. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have heard a lot about puppy farming, but that if we were talking about cattle, horses or sheep, there would be a bigger noise about it and something would be done?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. That is the focus that we want to put into this debate.

Official figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show an increase in the number of dogs brought into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In the first year, 2011, the number was 85,000; in the most recent year, 2016, the number was 275,000. If that does not disturb Members, it should. It is time that we made more people aware of what they could be getting, and how these little dogs come here.

I ask for four things. First, we should increase the maximum penalties for those caught illegally importing dogs, and introduce punitive fixed penalty notices. Secondly, we should shift the focus in enforcement of pet travel legislation away from the carriers—that is, the ferries and Eurotunnel. Thirdly, we should introduce a centrally accessible database to log pets’ microchip numbers and their date of entry into Great Britain. Fourthly, we need intelligence-led enforcement to identify dealers and traders who are regularly importing multiple puppies.

This is a matter for people in the street who care that the animal they bring into their homes to become a part of their family is an animal that has been cared for. I support making life impossible for those who are flouting the rules with no regard for welfare, and that is why I am here today to support the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire, as is everybody else present.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing this debate, because it is good to keep our concentration on the issue of puppy smuggling. I am also delighted to see the Minister here; we are expecting great things from him, because as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said, it is time for action, not just words.

The statistics show that there are between 9 and 11 million dogs in the country. If a dog has an average life of 10 or 12 years, we can work out that we probably need somewhere between three quarters of a million and a million puppies every year. From the statistics on what we breed in this country and what is bred in Ireland, we know that there is a huge shortage of puppies, which is being filled by illegal gangs. It is relatively easy to falsify veterinary certificates and all sorts to get puppies through the border. When a person comes to the border, it is largely the paper trail that is checked, rather than someone looking into the vans and vehicles and finding where those puppies are. We need to be much stronger. It is not just about a paper trail; we have to actually get into the vans and find out what is happening.

I admire what the Dogs Trust has been doing. The evidence it has given the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs shows that puppy smuggling is a real problem. Our Committee released its “Animal welfare in England: domestic pets” report back in 2016-17, and one of our recommendations was that the Government ban third-party puppy sales. At the time, the Government were not sure whether they wanted to do so, but since then the Secretary of State has looked into the issue and announced a ban. If we could bring that about, we would at least be able to work out exactly where puppies come from. They would be with their owners, and we would buy them from those owners and from proper breeders. It would be more difficult for people to smuggle puppies in and pretend that they have come from wherever. We will never stamp out all puppy smuggling, but we can stamp out a lot of it.

I ask the Minister to please take action, because this cannot go on. This is not only about the misery caused to individuals, but about diseases potentially being brought into the country. These puppies are far too young and not properly socialised, so I look forward to the Minister’s actions.

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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, and to follow the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I was a member of his Committee for three years, and I spent a long time following him, so this is not a novel experience. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on having secured this debate.

Suffice it to say, the illegal transportation of puppies is a serious issue. Underage and unvaccinated animals are being smuggled from mainland Europe for sale in the UK, causing suffering to those puppies and endangering the health of animals here. Concerns about the illegal transportation of puppies include underage puppies being removed from their mothers too young and fears that some vets are falsifying data on pet passports for the pet travel scheme, including falsely declaring that puppies are more than eight weeks of age. Illegal importation is putting pressure on animal rescue centres, particularly in the south-east of England, and controls at border inspection posts are few and ineffective. It is still unclear how those will operate as Britain leaves the EU. There are also concerns about consumer protection and the risk to human health.

The RSPCA believes that the market for the puppy trade in Britain is anywhere from 700,000 to 1.9 million pups annually. Poor breeding, dealing and trading practices can have a long-term impact on animal welfare, leading to chronic health and behaviour problems and disappointed consumers, who find their new puppies falling ill or dying not long after purchase. Many would like to see the reintroduction of the requirement for a rabies blood test, which would reduce the risk of disease spreading, and the introduction of a wait period. Will the Minister comment on that?

Puppy smuggling is a shameful practice that causes trauma to innocent dogs and can lead to the spread of diseases to other dogs and humans in the UK. Puppies ought to be protected from that treatment, and consumers ought to be prevented from unwittingly purchasing an animal that may be unhealthy and badly behaved. It is time to raise sentences, bring in more rigorous border checks and increase consumer understanding to ensure that this immoral trade is stamped out and that animals are kept free from harm. I thank Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Dogs Trust and the RSPCA for their briefings.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on bringing forward this important debate. Puppy smuggling is an abhorrent crime, carried out with no regard for the welfare of puppies trapped in unimaginable conditions for days at a time. Like everyone else, I want to do everything I can to bring it to an end.

Those involved in the puppy smuggling trade rely on low animal welfare standards and high-volume breeding, treating these beautiful animals like products on a production line that runs from puppy farms in eastern Europe to homes in the UK. There is no doubt that puppies raised and sold through the industry suffer life-long physical and mental impacts, leading to chronic health conditions and often severe behavioural problems.

It is clear that the Government cannot eradicate the problem alone. We all have to take responsibility for ensuring that puppies are not sourced through third parties. Guidelines and advice from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the buying of puppies and dogs have not gone far enough in ensuring that those wishing to purchase puppies know the harm that third-party selling and puppy smuggling can cause. Demand and supply go hand in hand, and the scourge of puppy smuggling cannot be eradicated unless both are addressed and preventive measures are upheld to deter and stop those at both ends of this cruel supply chain.

I am sure all Members welcomed, as I did, the Government’s announcement that they intended to bring forward stricter punishments for animal cruelty offences. Tougher custodial sentences are long overdue for those who inflict harm on animals, such as the barbaric and unscrupulous criminals who facilitate puppy smuggling. I remain concerned, however, that the Government have not laid legislation to that effect before Parliament.

Brexit presents us with an opportunity to improve and tighten the rules and regulations on animal welfare. It is incredibly clear that the Government must take action to protect animal welfare and end puppy smuggling for good. We cannot delay any longer. We risk falling behind on the issue, and to do so would be to fail every one of the puppies trapped in this barbaric trade.

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I thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on calling this important debate. I am a dog lover. I lost my Labrador 18 months ago, and I still think about him every day, as sad as that might sound. [Hon. Members: “Aw.”] I have the sympathy of the audience, which is always a good move.

The issue goes beyond DEFRA. There should be cross-Department, joined-up thinking. Each element of the debate about puppy smuggling touches on three major Departments. It is estimated that more than 80,000 puppies a year come from places such as Ireland, Romania, Hungary and Lithuania. As we heard from the hon. Gentleman, criminal gangs can earn more than £2 million annually from the puppy trade. A ring of puppy dealers in Manchester was found to be earning £35,000 a week, with puppies being sold for anything between £550 and £1,000, depending on the breed, despite being purchased for only around £200 each from a puppy farm in Ireland. The trade costs the Treasury millions in lost tax revenue. The issue should be addressed by the Treasury.

If we are talking about puppies being smuggled in, the Home Office has to look at controls at border inspection posts. They are few and far between and are often ineffective, meaning that more puppies are allowed to be smuggled into the UK. It is unclear how that will operate post-Brexit. Checks that do take place are insufficiently intelligence-led, meaning that information sharing needs to be improved between agencies, carriers, customs officials and vets. That issue should be addressed by the Home Office.

We have the DEFRA Minister here, and there is one thing he can do. I want to join other voices in paying tribute to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home and the Dogs Trust for their campaign to increase animal cruelty sentences from six months to five years. I cannot tell the Chamber how important that would be in tackling puppy smuggling. It has to be introduced right now. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield—

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I am the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge.

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Sorry. I know my hon. Friend is a Sheffield Wednesday supporter. If the change cannot be brought in by Government, they should at least provide time for a private Member’s Bill so we can introduce it forthwith. The change has been promised for a long time, and the issue is ongoing. Action needs to be taken now.

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rose

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Ah! Sir Roger, I am afraid you have only a minute, but you are welcome to it.

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That is fine, Mr Hollobone. I will make three points very quickly in a minute. First, I live 15 miles from Dover. I use the cross-Channel ferries about 16 times a year. I am subjected to regular checks. The police are searching for firearms, drugs and terrorists. I cannot believe they cannot find puppies too.

Secondly, this is about money. We have to kill the trade, and the way we do that is by taking away the vehicle and crushing it in front of the owner on the quayside at Dover.

Thirdly, my son is a vet in a small animal practice. He picks up the bits of this trade time after time. It is miserable. The people who buy the puppies face considerable distress. The short answer is public education: if it is cheap, it is probably also nasty.

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It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing yet another important debate on puppy smuggling almost 17 months to the day since he last brought the same matter to the attention of the House. He has spoken in detail again and outlined all the issues extremely well. I also congratulate all Members who took part in the debate. This issue has support across the House. Although I do not have enough time to cover all the points that were raised, I thank everyone for their contributions and I support their points.

I am proud to say that I stand here representing two groups that have appeared to make significant progress on the issue in the 17 months since the last debate. First, as primary sponsor of the hugely popular Lucy’s law campaign to ban third-party sales of puppies, which will finally remove the market for smuggled pups, I commend the UK Government for confirming that historic change to the legislation, which I believe is imminent—

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Will the hon. Lady give way?

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I will not, because we have little time.

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I just want to ask whether the same is being done in Scotland.

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I will come to that. That historic change to the legislation will be the first major legislative step to help tackle not only illegal puppy smuggling and selling from abroad, but legal licensed puppy farm cruelty in this country.

Secondly, I am chair of the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group, APDAWG. The group has successful meetings on this subject and well-attended members’ events. APDAWG—backed by a well-supported early-day motion and an e-petition, which secured over 100,000 signatures in just 13 days, and supported by the RSPCA, the Kennel Club and almost every other welfare organisation in the UK—was instrumental in the success of Lucy’s law. I commend all the work done to bring that forward.

Since I am the owner of a rescue dog, Rossi—a French bulldog, which is one of the most popular breeds for smugglers—it is not surprising that puppy smuggling is a subject close to my heart. It is also close to the hearts of my constituents in Scotland, where it is not uncommon for puppies to be smuggled in from Ireland and sold on via third-party dealers. The smuggling of puppies into the UK mainland for resale has been ongoing for many years and has repeatedly been raised by organisations such as Dogs Trust, which I commend for its work.

Welfare issues in pups and adult dogs include the conditions at breeding establishments where puppies are born and reared; the age at which puppies are separated from their mothers; the conditions under which puppies are transported; the length of travel time; the low standards of hygiene and increased risk of disease in undernourished, stressed young animals; the risk to public health and the health of the resident pet population from non-endemic and potentially zoonotic diseases entering the UK; and false documentation, fraud and tax evasion. That is by no means a complete list, but it gives some idea of the serious nature of the issue and how it affects both animals and humans.

The commercial sale of puppies through licensed third-party dealers provides a legitimate market for puppies imported from outside the UK. The existence of that market has significantly facilitated the lucrative legal and illegal puppy trade. Illegal dealers have been able to advertise and trade alongside licensed sellers because, under the outdated and recently repealed Pet Animals Act 1951, it has been perfectly legal for puppies to be sold on a commercial basis by persons other than the breeder, away from where they were born and without being seen alongside their mothers.

The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018, which were introduced in October, have considerably tightened up the licensing requirements for dog breeding and selling. As we have heard, in December 2018 the Government committed to banning third-party sales of puppies and kittens in England in a measure known as Lucy’s law. That will be a significant development in the fight against puppy smuggling, so will the Minister give us a date for bringing it to fruition?

It is hoped that Wales and Scotland will also ban commercial third-party puppy sales to ensure that legislation is consistent across the UK and that anyone who sells a puppy on the UK mainland is totally traceable and accountable. Both legislatures have consultations under way on the issue.

I hope that I have suggested what the issues today are. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As other hon. Members have done, I thank the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) for securing this debate and for keeping up the pressure to get this terrible activity banned. We need to keep up that pressure if we are to make progress.

There is huge public appetite for robust action to improve the lives of animals and strengthen the animal protections in our laws. We are a nation of animal lovers, and we want all our animals to be well loved and given the opportunity to live happy and stable lives. Puppy smuggling is just one of many serious animal welfare issues that all Members read about in our postbags. Since last year’s debate on the matter, I have been proud to launch the Labour party’s animal plan, which pledges to take increased measures to tackle puppy smuggling. It has received an excellent response and we are working on the next version, which I hope to be able to share with hon. Members shortly.

It is obvious that the humane treatment of animals should be a benchmark for a civilised society. As parliamentarians, we must send out a strong message that the illegal importation of puppies is a cruel practice that must stop; there has been extraordinary consensus on that today, just as there was last year. The Animal and Plant Health Agency and many animal welfare charities such as the Dogs Trust, the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home have done a lot of crucial and very welcome work to tackle puppy smuggling.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, it really is time for the Government to act. I know that their commitment to banning the third-party sale of puppies and kittens through Lucy’s law, which the Minister announced in December, has been welcomed by Cats Protection and many dog charities—it is indeed welcome, but we need to see results as soon as possible. The pledge to increase sentences is also welcome, but the legislation needs to be introduced as soon as possible so that we can debate it, scrutinise it and get it on the statute book; I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of when that will happen. In the meantime, Government agencies need the resources to tackle puppy smuggling by enforcing the current legislation. We need to ensure that we have sufficient border guards, with greater international co-operation between police forces to crack down on the problem properly.

As we have heard, dogs should be available only from licensed and regulated breeders or from approved rehoming organisations. Unfortunately, the current legislation does not protect the welfare of all dogs or the interests of all consumers, so the only solution is to ban third-party sales entirely. We have heard about the terrible treatment of smuggled dogs and the terrible diseases and health problems that they can suffer, as in the really sad story that the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire told. As long as there is a market for cheap, intensively bred puppies, such welfare problems will persist, because the incentives for non-compliance far exceed the penalties.

Availability may artificially inflate demand, so unless we reduce the supply of cheap, poorly bred puppies from dealers and smugglers, we will never bring a more responsible buying culture into society. Ministers have said that prospective buyers should always insist on seeing a puppy interacting with its mother in the place where it was born, but that advice is inconsistent with the ongoing legality of third-party sales, because it concedes that neither animals nor consumers can be protected by the regulations imposed on the industry. We therefore need a third-party sales ban as soon as possible.

I do not think that it is too ambitious to want to move on now, or to ask the Government to do more to enable that. Animal welfare must not be swept under the carpet or undercut, so I ask the Minister again for a commitment that he will continue to show that he understands the need for this legislation and that he will do everything he can to stamp out this appalling trade.

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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) on securing the debate. It is a testament to the hard work of my hon. Friend and many other Members, and to public concern, that so many are present. I am grateful for his work and his active communication.

Since my appointment as Minister, it has become increasingly clear to me that we need to tackle the abhorrent puppy smuggling trade from end to end by looking at both supply and demand. I have spent a lot of time working with officials on the issue. Like all other hon. Members who have spoken, I have zero tolerance for the unscrupulous dealers and breeders who are simply abusing the pet travel scheme—we need to put an end to that.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend—no, my hon. Friend; I am elevating him before his time, but I am sure that his time will come—for highlighting such an abhorrent case, which brought home just how awful and how illegal puppy smuggling activities are. We need to do everything we can to protect animals, their potential owners and other humans who may suffer from the health risks. We must tackle the issue as best we can and with real urgency.

Along with 137 other Members of Parliament, I have pledged to be part of the Dogs Trust’s campaign to end puppy smuggling. I stand by that commitment fully, and I am very grateful to the trust for its hard work on this really important issue. We must also respect the important work that the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home do to shine a spotlight on the issue.

DEFRA’s overall comprehensive approach to tackling puppy smuggling encompasses international engagement, enforcement, tighter regulations and public communications. We have been doing a great deal of work on all those fronts since the last Westminster Hall debate in 2017.

The Government continue to raise the issue of puppy smuggling at an international level. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, raised that issue today. International engagement is particularly important in the wake of intelligence such as that mentioned by my hon. Friend, which suggests that puppies from non-EU countries such as Serbia are being illegally imported into the UK with EU passports and microchips, to make them appear EU-bred. Our chief veterinary officer has written to Serbia and Hungary, which is one of the potential receiving countries, to highlight our concerns.

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I have raised this point before. At the moment, people can bring in five puppies legally. I do not think that anyone needs five puppies for their own need. Will the Minister look at that? I mention the word “Brexit”, and leaving the EU under whatever system and circumstance. Can we reduce the allowance to two puppies? I really do not think anyone needs five puppies; it is just open to abuse from criminal gangs.

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My hon. Friend has been very consistent on this point in Committee and in other meetings, and that is something that we will be able to look at. We have sympathy with the point that he, and many others, make.

To highlight the international dimension of the issue, I note that it is not just us who are concerned about the illegal puppy trade. At a recent international forum, Austrian, Dutch, German, French, Italian and Danish representatives all highlighted the increase in the trade.

Many hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Ross Thomson), and the hon. Members for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) have talked about the need to increase 10-fold the maximum sentence for animal cruelty, from six months to five years. We are absolutely committed to that, and I am very keen to bring that to the House—

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And we will do it very shortly. This is a huge priority for us. Obviously, it requires primary legislation. I hope that hon. Members can see that I am as committed as they are to bringing this forward as soon as we can, but it requires other parts of the Government to work with us. We will push it through. I know that the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) will cut me a little bit of slack, because she knows that I am keen to move the matter forward.

The hon. Member for Workington raised resources. We have increased resources at major UK ports by one third since 2017, specifically to detect smuggled puppies. That has helped us to intercept tragic cases such as that of Lola, the heavily pregnant French bulldog, who has already been mentioned today. Last year, we also launched our new dog importation intelligence steering group. It consists of national enforcement agencies such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Border Force, the police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who are forming a collaborative partnership with the Animal and Plant Health Agency to disrupt puppy smuggling. I know that my right hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) and for Ashford (Damian Green) are concerned about that issue.

Our collaborative relationship with Border Force continues, and last year Border Force established a special point of contact at Dover, who is specifically in post to share information and intelligence on suspected puppy smuggling. DEFRA and APHA officials have been working in partnership with the Dogs Trust since 2015 on the Dover puppy pilot, which aims to tackle the illegal importation of puppies by providing additional resource to seize and quarantine smuggled puppies, as well as to ensure that they are placed in secure, caring homes afterwards.

APHA continues to be fully engaged at the border, and last year we saw a downturn in the number of non-compliant puppies seized. It is, however, too early to draw any conclusions from that single result, but we will continue to monitor the situation and to shine a spotlight on the issue.

Based on what we have seen so far, there is limited overall evidence of concealed smuggling, with the exception of one case last year in which Border Force collaborated with APHA to intercept 10 heavily sedated and concealed puppies. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire mentioned that case in his opening remarks. I will be discussing the issue in more detail with the Minister for Immigration when I meet her later this month to further our continued collaboration on puppy smuggling, which is one of the requests that has been made. We need a joined-up approach.

Improving and ensuring the welfare of animals is at the heart of our recent welfare reforms. In December last year, we announced that we were going to ban the third-party selling of puppies and kittens. I was proud to be able to do that. Third-party sales are often linked to so-called puppy farms and to shocking welfare conditions, which many of us have seen on video or TV footage. It is absolutely abhorrent, and a ban will mean that puppies and kittens younger than six months can only be sold by the breeder directly or adopted through rescue and rehoming centres.

When the selling of puppies is restricted to licensed breeders, that will also help to deter people from attempting to bring puppies into the country to be sold here. The ban will help to tackle puppy smuggling as well as to address welfare issues here in England. I know that hon. Members are interested to know when that secondary legislation will be laid, and I can tell them that that will be later this spring—so, very soon.

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This spring!

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There are plenty of other things going on—I can see hon. Members complaining, but we are moving forward later this spring. There is much more that we want to do to move this forward—

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Get on with it!

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We are getting on with it. As many hon. Members have said, we need to look at the effectiveness of on-the-spot fines. We will look at that and will review the effectiveness of mandating carriers to conduct 100% visual checks of all dogs travelling. For example, Eurotunnel has a pet checking reception, built in 2015, which gives it the capacity to visually check many dogs, and we will be exploring the positive impacts of that in tackling puppy smuggling.

We need to do more on communications with the public to help them to understand the commitments they are making at the point of purchase, and to help them think about where the puppy that they are so keen to buy has been sourced from.

Coming back to the “B” word, which a few hon. Members have mentioned, we will be considering our future approach to regulation in the context of the negotiations on our future relationship with the EU. We are open to actively exploring future options and opportunities for our pet travel scheme, and will look at each of the recommendations from the Dogs Trust and the British Veterinary Association as a part of that. I hope that that gives some reassurance to my hon. Friends the Members for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and for Mid Worcestershire that we are committed to taking further action, and that we will continue to ensure that there are robust controls on disease and animal welfare after we leave the EU.

My time is just about up and I hear some shouts outside, which I hope are not about this particular subject. I and the Government are committed to working collaboratively with colleagues to take further action on this vitally important issue.

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I just briefly say a very big thank you to so many colleagues, from all nations and all parts of the UK, who have contributed to the debate and have made so many compelling arguments and constructive recommendations in so many different policy areas where we can take action. I also thank the Minister for the content and the tone of his response. I do not doubt for one minute his sincerity. I have trust and faith that we will see action from him, but we wish to be very clear that there is a sense of urgency. There is a bit of impatience, but we will trust the Government that they will take action. We are a nation of dog lovers and animal lovers. Let us take some more action so that we can really show that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of puppy smuggling.

Sitting adjourned.